Lemniskata is an NGO in the heart of Prague, Czechia, which employs people with disabilities to produce eco-friendly stationery products made of malai leather, handmade paper, recycled coffee mugs, and animal excrement (yes, no typo!). It is also an inclusive community where people find a sense of belonging, fulfilling work, artistic expression, and, most importantly, a home. In an interview with Vlasta Urbanova, director of Lemniskata, Youth Time learns about inspiration, people, art, and the meaning behind the “Life with No Barriers” workshop.
The initiative grew from an acute shortage of barrier-free workplaces for people with disabilities. The workshop has been operating since 2011. At the moment, Lemniskata employs 16 people with various types of disability – mental, physical, or psychiatric illnesses. However, the demand for positions is much higher. Vlasta comments that almost every day someone calls asking for a job.
Since its establishment, Lemniskáta has been a member of the Association for Therapeutic Education and Social Therapy in the Czech Republic which has an anthroposophical view of man (Greek: anthrópos-man, sofia-wisdom).
The 20th-century philosophy postulates that every human is irreplaceable and, in individual uniqueness, enriches humankind as a whole. The notion of “disability” in light of this view becomes relative, as does the term “therapist”. This approach also serves as the backbone of Lemniskata.
“We strive for our employees to feel affirmed through their work, acquire new manual and social skills. while also feeling that they are part of a group of people who consider the individual needs of each member of the team in order to form a strong community. The team that runs the sheltered workplace is committed to the fundamental human right to live in conditions that allow people to develop their qualities and fill their lives with meaning”, says Vlasta.
A Second Home
Beyond the motivation of offering jobs to people who struggle to find work on the regular job market, Lemniskata strives to become a second home to their employees. According to Vlasta, many of them do not have families or have lost contact with their relatives. The whole team visits workshops, launches parties for new products, goes to the theatre, concerts and organizes benefit events.
“We strive to help our employees to see their own value and to learn to love themselves. But we also encourage our employees to be aware of other people’s pain as well and to understand that they are not the only ones with problems. That is why we have started to support projects run by Zdravotní klaun. The company uses humour to help seriously ill children cope with sadness, feelings of hopelessness and injustice”.
Lemniskata takes “barrier-free” to a social level too and opens its doors to the public by organizing workshops and excursions for schools.
A Story That Sounds Like a Fairy Tale
Every person involved in the workshop has a unique yet not an easy life story. In different ways, the community has had a transformative impact on people lives. We asked Vlasta to share one of the numerous inspiring stories. She said that the story behind a book of poems by Richard may sound like a fairy tale.
“Richard was placed in a psychiatric hospital and didn’t seem to want to return to a normal life. He was passive and showed little interest in anything. During one of my visits, I asked him what he had enjoyed doing prior to being hospitalized. He told me that he had been writing Japanese haiku. He showed me his work, and I understood that we had a poet working in our workshop. I immediately offered to publish the book. Not only did we manage to do so within a month, but Richard left the hospital two days later and has not returned since”.
Upcycling and Recycling Unusual Materials
The main focus of Lemniskata is the production of environmentally friendly notebooks and diaries. And not in name only. The notebooks are made of handmade paper from local paper mills, recycled cotton, flax, hemp and old jeans. The most unusual materials – dried zebra, donkey, elephant and horse dung, are delivered from the local zoo. In return to using paper made of wood, the workshop gives back by planting trees.
The whole team is also on a constant lookout for interesting leftover material. Thus, Vlasta recently discovered vegan malai leather developed by Zuzana Gombosova from Slovakia. Malai leather is a high-quality and full-fledged substitute for leather made of coconut water and banana fibres.
Sometimes, new approaches come from the outside. “Other materials – for example, paper from recycled coffee cups made in England, where 2.5 billion cups are consumed every year, was offered to us by their importer, who liked our workshop and now sells us this rather expensive kind of paper at an affordable price”.
16 Different Tasks to Produce a Single Notebook
The finished notebooks and diaries are decorated either with the workshop’s own designs or through cooperation with various artists. The well-known photographers Jindra Štreit and Robert Vano were the first ones to provide their designs for the products. Many other Czech musicians, illustrators and artists offer their contributions to the design aspects of the production.
It takes 16 different tasks to produce a single notebook. Vlasta comments that she cannot tell how much time it requires to accomplish these steps, and it’s not entirely relevant:
“It is a 10-minute job for a healthy and moderately skilled person, provided someone prepares all the necessary material. In our workshop, however, some people work at a slower pace, whereas others may often be absent, as they are dealing with large personal issues. And others are only capable of counting out the sheets of paper. But these are precisely the people we are here for, and we don’t want to change anything about how we work by, for example, buying a machine that could count the sheets automatically”.
Competition for Grants for NGOs Is Enormous
The workshop has achieved a competitive level of quality and is garnering attention from various organizations and media. Lemniskata products are sold online, at a few gift stores in Prague, and through commissions from schools and private companies. Nevertheless, Vlasta says the growing demand hasn’t increased the overall turnover.
“This is because the skills of our employees cannot be fully calculated in the prices of the products, as that would make them impossible to sell. We have reached the conclusion that we need to create a community of friends and supporters who will support us with even a small amount of money per month, because the competition for non-profit organizations applying for grants is enormous”.
Vlasta believes that the concept of providing support based on personal relationships is much more valuable than applying for grants from anonymous donors.
Our Employees Are Our Great Teachers
Youth Time asked Valsta to offer advice to our readers who are interested in starting their own NGO.
“I would encourage them to persevere, to make sure they get enough rest, to give up on saving the world, and to let things flow and to remain open. Problems often solve themselves when we stop standing in our own way with our stubborn perspectives and attitudes. I would advise them to be nice to others, but even more so to themselves, to avoid burn out. I would tell them not to let their sense of personal importance swell.”
Vlasta has been working in the workshop for the last six years and says that every day brings her new lessons: “I have learned to be grateful for everything that life brings my way, for the gift of health, mental well-being, and the opportunity to be a support and guide for the people here. And it works both ways; our employees are our great teachers”.
Photos: From the Archive of Lemniskata
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