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Self-employment in Serbia: therapist Jelena is establishing her own practice

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Self-employment in Serbia: therapist Jelena is establishing her own practice

My name is Jelena. I’m 36 years old and have two sons. One of them suffers from autism, and I supported and cared for him myself for many years. This made me realise that I can also help other people.

At the end of 2020 I was supported by the German Information Centre on Migration, Training and Employment (DIMAK) and its partner organisation HELP to set up my therapy practise “Senzor Gym”. That’s where I help children with disabilities to learn a range of movements – from simple hand movements to fine motor skills. I firmly believe that I can do so much more.

Jelena and her two sons

My story and that of my son

My family lived in Kosovo, but we fled to Serbia during the war in the 1990s. At first we lived in Prokuplje, where I gave birth to my son. I soon noticed that he was developing differently from other children. He was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder where sufferers have difficulties with social interaction and communicating with other people. It can result in limited speech and motor skills.

The doctors warned me that my son would never be able to lead a normal life. I wasn’t prepared to accept that. He’s now thirteen years old, goes to school, has friends, and likes art and sports. My other son is six years old and doesn’t have any health problems.

Our journey has been difficult, though. We had to move to Niš because this was the only place where therapy was available. Even here, we have far fewer therapy options than are available in Belgrade, so we often have to make the long journey there and back.

Jelena was supported by DIMAK and Help e.V.

I'm a physiotherapist by profession. I eventually started working at a speech therapy practice where my son was a patient. I realised that working with my own son makes it easier for me to understand other children on the autistic spectrum. I’ve learned how to treat such children as equals.

Support for the self-employed

A few years ago, the organisation HELP presented a support programme at a meeting for parents of children with autism. This programme aims to support people who want to start their own business that helps children with special needs. I already had my own future practice in mind when I was listening to this presentation. I submitted a project shortly after that – and it was approved.

HELP sent me equipment that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford. My brother provided me with a small building. It had been neglected and was due to be demolished. But we renovated it, and I began my work. 

In 2021, DIMAK helped me through a consultation and mentoring programme. A few other start-ups and I received a lot of online advice regarding the management and further development of our companies. That was really useful, because this is the first time I’ve run a business.

Jelena has employed a speech therapist to work in her practice.

The programme comprises five modules in which participants develop their knowledge of how to run a business. It covers entrepreneurship, e-business, marketing, business communication and culture as well as innovation. The participants are also given individual advice from mentors, meaning that they can develop new business ideas together. DIMAK also provided me with disinfectant and an air filter, which meant that I could carry on working even during the corona pandemic.

I’m proud of what I do. Now I want to do more.

I’m proud. Getting through the pandemic was a difficult time, and it still is. But I’ve set up my practice despite everything. I can now help a lot of children as well as their families. I’ve also recently completed courses in sensory therapy at the Institute for Mental Health in Belgrade. Courses like these are brilliant for children with autism, because the training enables therapists like me to better understand how I can help them. I also learned a lot about that myself while I was raising my son. I’ve now moved into a larger practice facility and have been able to employ a speech therapist. I’d like to expand even further and employ more staff, such as psychologists and special needs teachers. Children could then get all the therapy they need in one location. A larger practice means more work, but it also means that I can help more children and their families.

Learning movements through play: Jelena's work also involves playing on swings.

Apart from my practice, there’s only one other practice in southern Serbia that offers sensory therapy for children with an autism spectrum disorder.

Parents often bring their children from far away. I get a lot of phone calls from families who need support for their children. I’m currently investigating ways to expand my business. I’ve already taken the first steps towards establishing a holistic therapy centre, but it’s also clear that there’s still a lot more for me to do in this area.

Date: 01/2023

This text is written in simple language to ensure that it’s easy for everyone to understand.

My practice enables me to help children with disabilities to learn motor skills. I firmly believe that I can do so much more.

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