The Socio-Therapeutic Association of Almeida, which has an anthroposophical orientation, is an Institution of Social Solidarity. It is non-profit and dedicated to public service. It was legally founded on October 26th, 2000, by Maria José Dinis de Fonseca (the mother of a boy with a mental disability). Its activities began in October of 2000, with six young participants in the founder’s home, located in a village called Cabreira do Côa, in the County of Almeida, Guarda District. The Regional Center for Social Security in Guarda, which from the beginning believed in this project, established an agreement for cooperation with ASTA, which made its sustainability possible.
ASTA’s guiding vision is:
- to help people in need of specialized care (essentially young people at least 18 years old who have an intellectual disability or multiple disabilities) and offer them the possibility of having a way of life that is valid and meaningful.
- to contribute towards the social, human, and economic integration of these people and make an effort to create living conditions for them which are as ‘normal’ and real as possible, so that their future will be infused with the dignity and respect that they deserve, both from a biopsychosocial and from a spiritual perspective.
ASTA’s universe is currently composed of 36 disabled people (both resident and non-resident) and 30 collaborators (both staff members and volunteers). The socio-therapeutic work is carried out in the following three sections: Residential Home, Independent Residence, and the Center for Occupational Activities. These sections are distributed between the village of Cabreira and the main center, which is located on the hilltop of Fonte Salguiera.
ASTA does not have the direct intention of normalizing the people it helps, but rather of individualizing them, so that each one finds the most appropriate path for him or her.
More than just wanting to occupy disabled people’s time, ASTA wants, through the experience of companionship and through educational and socio-therapeutic work in a community context in a rural setting, to contribute to disabled people’s independence, self-sufficiency, and self esteem, in such a way that each disabled person is converted into a dignified, useful, and productive member of society (always respecting the potentialities and characteristics of each person). We take into consideration the three conditions necessary for a human being/citizen to really feel included: a family, a job, and a social group.
Keeping this objective in view, we create (in a gradual manner) living situations similar to family units in the village of Cabreira, and this allows us to take in more young people as residents. The renovation and furnishing of the houses was essentially done with the help of volunteers, donations, the support of the Oriente Foundation in the case of the Oliviera House, and the support of Program Leader in the case of the Cristalina House. More recently, the São Miguel House was rebuilt (financed 50% by the program PARES).
These homes are composed of disabled people living together as family units, as a training exercise for independence, offering the possibility of taking in a group of people from among the many who are looking for this type of answer because they do not have a family to help them.
In 2004, the main building complex was completed. It is an ecological space, located one kilometer from the village “Alto da Fonte Salgueiro”. It was a donation.It provided educational, therapeutic and social momentum. It is composed of three separate buildings: Ateliers Verde Pino (workshops, a multipurpose salon, administrative and therapeutic areas); Casa da Fonte (residential); and the Carpentry Workshop. 60% of the complex was financed by PIDDAC and 40% by theSoftware Foundation, Mahle, Lord Michelham and the result of an exhibition of 70 artists.
Therefore, summarizing, in order to carry out its objectives, ASTA intends:
- to create and equip appropriate physical spaces that are capable of responding to the therapeutic and social necessities of their users, including homes in which the users can live together as family units in the village, making use of old houses which are either donated or bought at a low price. In this way, we can reach our goal of a real integration and interaction in the community.
- to make users responsible through the sharing of home chores with ASTA’s collaborators (always keeping in mind each user’s individual potential), and to involve them in the civic activities of the village
- to encourage interaction between the family units, to create greater support for the users and to give them a greater understanding of the community they live in.
- to give individualized support, through a biographical and therapeutic follow-up.
- to carry out handicraft and artistic activities, stimulating the creative potential and promoting the user’s abilities through carpentry, ceramics and pottery, weaving, using recycled paper, theater, music, etc.
- to establish a repeated and regular contact with nature and the earth, making use of the entire rural area around the village, through vegetable gardening, livestock, and bio-agriculture.
- to promote cultural events, expositions, congresses and conferences which can contribute to a greater socialization and lead to a greater recognition and respect of differences.
- to use Curative Education and Social Therapy as a basis for our work and for living together.
Analysis of ASTA by Luis Quirós
Maria José, the mentor of this project, was born in the village of Cabreira. At the age of 10, she began her studies in the nearest town, she then continued her journey in Lisbon, where she married and had a son, Marco, who was born with mental disabilities. This fact was crucial, and from that moment on, Maria José began to sketch the fledgling principles of a dream: to build a space to respond to the needs of these special people, in particular, providing the dignity that they deserve.
This led her on the quest to learn more and prepare herself for the realization of this dream. 15 years later, she left Portugal for Switzerland where, during four years (in the Institute for Perceval Foundation) she obtained a degree for Curative Education and Social Therapy. She finally felt equipped to start the project she had always wanted, with a view to serving the people of her depressed region, the Beira Interior. In 1998, she created the Association together with 30 friends who shared the same vision.
As the first step, ASTA applied for the PIDDAC Program (Investment and Development funding from Central Government) presenting her proposal including an architectural project to implement in a location, donated for this purpose, situated 1 km from the village of Cabreira.
This application was granted in early 1999. However, the evaluation commission of PIDDAC, visiting the site, considered that such project was not feasible, due to lack of infrastructure in place, and the long distance of the site from the nearest city. Within its feedback, PIDDAC recommended that the project be relocated to a more urban area.
However, the determination of the founder of ASTA combined with the strong belief in the possibility of constructing a social space within a therapeutic rural ambience, capable of addressing the needs of disabled people of this less-favoured region, including his son, meant that Maria Jose refused to give up on her dream.
So, on 2 October 2000, she decide to use her own house, in the village, in order to start the operation. This fulfilled the promised made to the group of young people with disabilities, who were anxiously waiting
The project, that initially caused scepticism in the population and the institutions, taking into account the rural nature and size of the village without economic resources or political forces in support, was now achieving a growing acceptance and realization of its importance to its benefactors and the wider local community.
This recognition was the result the primary aim of the project to support, educate, and integrate people with learning disabilities. And, at the same time, the project was creating physical spaces, developing human resources and leveraging local resources to revitalize the site for therapeutic activities. This included the restoration of long-abandoned and damaged houses in the village, and the revitalization of abandoned fields for cultivation.
Thus, with the small initial group of six “companions” (this concept , born of the feeling of sharing and interaction together, side by side, both who learns and teaches) and three volunteers , the institution started to move up, grow and enter the hearts of the local people. Disability was demystified and efficiencies valued.
Step by step, some degraded heritage was restored providing housing units for young people with disabilities who were without family (the Casa da Oliveira, Casa Cristal and later, the Casa São Miguel), first with support from civil society and volunteerism and later with funds from hiring of facilities.
These spaces served also as workshops for the production of tiles, pottery, carpentry and weaving (with the help of a subsidy from the Fundação Oriente to purchase equipment for these workshops).
The art, aesthetics and spirituality have always been present in the rhythms of daily life of ASTA. Pieces of land received by donation have been used to create organic gardens, that the group have been cultivating, thus providing educational and therapeutically purposes. The village of Cabreira itself has witnessed a transformation, and the group that was initially feared, has become an integral part of the community that no longer conceives itself to exist without their presence.
The ASTA printed new socio-cultural and ecological rhythms in the region, through demonstrations and social events, which were becoming increasing popular. People with disabilities now feel respected and fully integrated in the society. People in Cabreira has embraced a new reality in the field of human and social support, developing citizenship in a proactive, creative and synergistic way.
Meanwhile ASTA was bidding for international support. This was the case for Foudation Software and Foudation Mahle both of Germany, and Foudation Lord Michelham, from Switzerland. All of them found that the project was innovative, valuable and decided to support it.
Finally In 2001, in face of the work already done and the irrepressible determination of the promoters to follow the same path, the PIDDAC Commission, made a second visit to the place and looked upon it with new eyes. Feeling the importance of it, they decided to approve the construction of a new building at top of the site, Fonte Salgueira, subject to the conditions of some architectural changes.
The construction began in 2002 with 60% of the total cost supported by the PIDDAC program and the remaining 40% supported by the foreign foundations mentioned above. And also supported by the funds generated through the selling of artwork presented in an exhibition – “Art Hands”, consisting of works donated by 70 artists. Support was also received from various fundraisers and donations from civil society.
Finally, on 2 October 2004 the new building was inaugurated. The new space,brought a new dimension to the Association, allowing it to increase support foryoung people, countrywide.
By increasing the workshops and activities, the village has intensified the concept‘ECO-ASTA’ with respect for the environment and humanity . Other areas continue to be rejuvenated with the help of civil society and a network of friends around thecountry and abroad.
A special reference to the “Manuel Antonio da Mota” prize awarded to ASTA, which, in 2010, gave way to breathless new agricultural activities and agro-livestock.
ASTA has become a reference place where schools come to learn the difference,where students search material for their thesis, where others come just to stop, rest and recover, where increasing number of parents come to find the answer tothe needs of their “special” children.
The rural exodus in Cabreira has been averted. People are no longer leaving the village, in fact, many are arriving with aspirations to join the community. The discovery of the possibility of a healthier life, more humane and more economicalin spaces like these, leads us to consider this good practice as a textbook examplethat could be followed by many.
As a final part of this presentation, we want to state a principle formulated byASTA:
“We believe that every person, whatever his mental state, is more than yourphysical appearance and that every human being is endowed with an individual existence. No physical or mental disability is an accident or a misfortune, it has ameaning and a purpose: to transform the course of a lifetime.
Like any Being forced to fight against different obstacles and illness, the person in need of special care, must learn to live with their difficulties and overcome them. “
Since its beginning, ASTA has had a dynamic that is educational, cultural and related to socialization and to sensitizing people and making them responsible. This dynamic manifests itself through the repeated activities that we carry out, such as: The Walk for the Children of the World; The Solidarity Fair; musical performances by the group “Pé Coxinho”; performances by our theater group; interactions with local schools and institutions of higher education, in addition to annual exchanges with Portuguese and foreign organizations that are similar to ours.
All of the work carried out in our workshops always has a component that is therapeutic, esthetic, and useful because it is dignified and recognized as a social and economic contribution.
For the investment projects and the socio-cultural initiatives, we count on the goodwill, participation, and support of the extended Group of Friends of ASTA, who have contributed so much to our enthusiastic dynamic (the Group of Friends of ASTA was created in 2001, and extends across the country and abroad). We believe that, in this way, with an active and informed involvement on the part of society in general, our projects will have more spirit, more power, and more future.
We believe that each person, regardless of his mental state, is more than his physical appearance, and that every human being is endowed with an individual existence. No physical or mental disability is a mere coincidence or a disgrace. It has a meaning and a purpose: to transform the course of a person’s life.
Just like any being, forced to struggle against different obstacles and illnesses, a person in need of special care must learn to live with his or her difficulties and overcome them, searching for what is possible.
The great objective/mission of ASTA is to help in this learning and this search, giving them MEANING.