As a social work intern at the Istituto Europeo, I am conducting research on various social organizations here in Florence. My goal is to understand three key things about them: who they are, what they do, and the impact they are making on the community. I have just recently undertaken this task, beginning with I Ragazzi di Sipario. It was nearly 12 years ago when Stefania Piccini and her husband were faced with an unexpected challenge. Their son Cosimo, who was born with a mental disability, had recently graduated from high school when they quickly realized that his capacity for social interaction was in jeopardy.
There were simply no community resources to help him maintain the same level of socialization that he had received, while enrolled in the public school system; that is until a father-son pastime sparked an idea. It was Mr. Piccini’s outings with Cosimo to play golf, where the couple began to see not only their son’s ability, but also his dedication to playing the sport. Soon after, they began to organize small groups of mentally disabled youth to bring to the golf course. It was through these recreational outings, that the youth were able to socialize and stay connected. It was also a way, as Stefania mentions, to help then learn the proper socialization skills and manners for this public setting. From there they began to branch off into the theatrical and culinary arts, leading to an association that today is comprised of three separate organizations, all of which encourage 100% hands-on participation from the youth.
Ristorante I Ragazzi di Sipario is a restaurant, started 6 years ago and located on Via de’ Serragli, which teaches these teens the culinary and service skills needed to work in a restaurant. All the participants are trained and employed at the restaurant by the Piccini’s, with the help of other volunteers. There is always at least one volunteer on staff, who manages the restaurant and serves as a guide to the youth, so to keep things running smoothly. The second organization, Sipario TV is a web-based TV station, broadcast online via the association’s website.
This is where youth learn the same journalism and broadcasting skills used by established news programs. Participants conduct independent research on contemporary social issues and news stories, and then report their findings and opinions. While the station offers roughly five different formats of shows, they have two staple presentations, both of which are guided by Giancarlo, a volunteer. The Fact is a commentary piece that consists of participants expressing their views on a chosen news article of the day. The second, Café Dispiano, is an interview program where a variety of different individuals serve as guests and are interviewed on their work in the community. Finally there is the laboratory, Made in Sipario. Opened 2 years ago, this is where program participants come together to create an array of home décor products and paper items. Depending on the season, the products can vary; a decision making process that is always a group effort. An art instructor and friend of the Piccini’s volunteers her time to teach them a papier-mache like process, and then guides the youth as they construct. All the products are handmade or hand decorated, and sold in a shop located next door. Each place their own separate entity, but all share the same vision and mission; to give mentally disabled youth, who have graduated from high school, the opportunity to experience a normal life. There are not many options for them after leaving the public education system, a time in life where their peers are only just beginning. These organizations allow these youth to learn skill sets and have jobs…to give them a sense of purpose in their lives and go home at the end of a long day like everyone else; feeling proud of themselves. It seems that the Piccini’s dream is now being challenged, epitomized by Stefania’s answer for what her association’s future plans are…“to survive”, she says. But why is this organization’s road becoming so rocky? Primarily, there is a lack of funds.
I Ragazzi di Sipario is funded through private resources consisting of: their own financial investment, any private donations made, and the profits that are generated at the restaurant and the laboratory. The Piccini’s do apply to private grants via the EEC when they are available, but may not always receive the funding. The Italian government does not provide any financial support to their cause. Another hindering factor is a deficiency in social support from the community.
Citing similar reasons for why this is, Stefania and other lead volunteers explain that many public, or political figures, often cannot see the personal benefit if they invest their time and associate their name to these organizations.
This is extremely evident at Sipario TV, as Giancarlo explains that while typically there is not a problem recruiting local guests for their interview segment; when reaching out to individuals who hold such social or political prominence, there has been some hesitation. Often the TV station is viewed as a form of charity by local businesses, resulting in a short-term or even one time collaboration…what the station really wants though, is to be taken seriously as a business. With regard to the restaurant, location may be its Achilles heel, as it is not centrally located or even visible from a main street. The Piccini’s are honest and forthcoming when parents of mentally disabled youth express interest in having their child become part of the association; taking care to explain how they, themselves, are not professional counselors, nor providing professional services. However, the reality is that the establishment of their organization is professional in nature and professional entities, especially social programs, require competitive action in order to survive.
This is where specialization, a practice rapidly growing in the States, can make all the difference. For example, in the U.S. the field of social work has evolved from being a profession of solely direct service to those in need, to encompassing three different levels of care; micro, mezzo, and macro.
It is simply not enough to want to care for underrepresented individuals and dedicate personal time to spend with them every day. This is only the jumping off point. In order to create a better life for those who may not be able to do so on their own, sustainability is the key: developing a system of support that will not only ensure access to care, but will also be in place well into the future, re-evaluating their association and beginning to reach out to other local social organizations which are more professionally established and proposing them a partnership.
Student at the school for foreigns Istituto Europeo in Florence