Social Impact Heroes: How Aizhan Alzhanova and Mama Pro are advocating and helping to raise awareness about the needs of children with special needs

Yitzi Weiner
Mar 1 · 9 min read
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A few weeks ago, I met up with her and was amazed. When she first came to Mama Pro, she was constantly exhausted and depressed. Now she looks happy and empowered. She told me that she started her own campaign to support families who have children with celiac disease. Due to her campaign, legislation has changed, and schools and kindergartens started to provide gluten-free meals and families can get gluten-free packages for free from the government.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aizhan Alzhanova is a co-founder of Mama Pro, a center in Kazakhstan which supports the professional growth of women who are stay-at-home mothers, have had employment difficulties due to the special needs of their children, or women who are victims of domestic violence. They currently have centers in Almaty and Astana but hope to one day have a center in every city in Kazakhstan. Previously, Aizhan studied at Nazarbayev University’s Graduate School of Education after her daughter, Zhanel, was diagnosed with Down syndrome. Aizhan considers Zhanel to be a massive inspiration in her work: she inspired Aizhan to change career paths, open these centers, and get through a deep depression to find herself in the right place and the right time to help other women like her.


Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I used to study finance and dreamed about working in one of the “Big 4”. However, at the age of 21, I became a mother to a daughter with Down syndrome. The next five years were about her rehabilitation and surgeries. When it came to my daughter starting school, I realized that there were only a few options, and these were all special schools. I wanted my daughter to have a chance to be in a learning environment with everyone else, but our educational system couldn’t provide it.

I started to research about inclusive education, what I could do to improve it and decided to dedicate myself to making social changes to provide a brighter future for my daughter. I enrolled at the Graduate School of Education at Nazarbayev University to study Inclusive Education and learned how to do research, how to present effectively, and how to start reforming the Kazakhstani school system.

After graduation, I started meeting with parents of children with special needs. I wanted to create a community that would advocate for an inclusive society, but most parents I met were too busy caring for their children and we're too stressed to think of anything else. I realized that in order to advocate for their children’s rights they needed to address their own financial and psychological needs. Parents of children with disabilities face not only the responsibility of caring for their child, but most of them also experience depression and financial problems.

In 2017, together with parents of children with special needs, we opened NGO “Mama Pro” to support parents and to build a community that would advocate for children’s rights. We started by inviting specialists and organizing a training on how to teach nonverbal children to socialize. Then we started to organize training on developing parental soft skills.

Besides managing educational programs for adults, I also develop programs for kids. While the parents are studying, their children are in the kids’ room with special trainers. Most children that attend our center are children with special needs, however, some of them are “typically developing” kids. So, we have an inclusive environment there. When I have a lot of work my daughter attends our center too. I am happy that I can develop my career, help other parents and build a community without being apart from her.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When we just opened our first center in Astana, we didn’t have any electricity for four months. This meant that could only work by daylight. At the time it was very difficult but now, when we think back, it makes us laugh.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One weekend, our partners from the ‘UN Women in Kazakhstan’ called us and told us that they wanted to visit our center. It was a Saturday and we weren’t really motivated to do a weekend meeting. But we gathered with our colleagues and met our guests. We had tea, a lovely conversation, and took a photo. Then we decided to google the guest that we had. We were shocked when we realized that she was Åsa Regnér, Assistant Secretary-General and UN Women Deputy Executive Director for the Intergovernmental Support and Strategic Partnerships Bureau. So, after that, we make sure to research anyone who is visiting us.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Most children with special needs live in poor families, and there are many reasons for that:

First of all, the cost of medical care and rehabilitation hits the family budget. In order to manage health issues and provide early learning for children, parents need to take out a number of loans. Secondly, both parents cannot often work at the same time. The mothers usually give up their career to take care of children. And lastly, even after their child with special needs is old enough and has no need for 24-hour daycare, mothers have already lost their professional capabilities and cannot work full time.

We provide courses on computer literacy and entrepreneurship skills and we also provide psychological help. Women can come with their children, while they are learning, and leave them in the specially-equipped kids’ room where tutors and teachers take care of them. Most of the children are home-schooled, and we have noticed that while attending our centers they have immensely improved their social skills.

We also provide one-day training every week on different topics. We invite professionals and the learning is very interactive. When we just started it was hard to gather ten people from the parents. Now they themselves ask us to deliver training on topics they are interested in.

So far, we have 200 alumni from our Mama Pro courses, and about 70 of them have started earning money by monetizing their hobbies, such as cooking, sewing, and teaching. They leave our center feeling empowered and holding a belief that everything is possible

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Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

Among our students, we had a mother with three kids, one of which was diagnosed with celiac disease. At first it didn’t seem like a massive health issue, but she then found that her son was unable to attend kindergarten or school due to them not catering for his dietary requirements. After attending our courses, she started her own small business in sewing national clothes to provide an income.

A few weeks ago, I met up with her and was amazed. When she first came to Mama Pro, she was constantly exhausted and depressed. Now she looks happy and empowered. She told me that she started her own campaign to support families who have children with celiac disease. Due to her campaign, legislation has changed, and schools and kindergartens started to provide gluten-free meals and families can get gluten-free packages for free from the government.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Absolutely, I believe there are definitely specific areas that need to be focused on at present:

  1. Raising awareness about the needs of children with special needs is highly important. Parents of these children must speak about it and advocate for equal rights. Our government is very open to change, but also unaware of where the change needs to happen.
  2. We need to develop inclusive education and provide equal rights for education. Forty percent of children with special needs don’t have an opportunity to attend any kindergarten or school in Kazakhstan.
  3. Lastly, it is important to change labor code, so the duration of maternity leave can be prolonged for parents of children with special needs. This would allow them to work part-time or distantly, so they can arrange the needs of their child alongside work.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

For me, leadership is about communicating and sharing. I could never have achieved the results I have on my own. In our company, we are all leaders: Gulsim Semyonova is the head of our foundation and works on strategic plans, Assiya Tikeeva is our communication manager, Gulziya Aitmagambetova is our internal manager and I am the project coordinator.

We all distribute roles among each other and have a common vision and goal; to raise leaders among the women in our community. When we first opened, we had only 20 residents, now there are almost 300 residents in our center.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Not every parent who has financial problems wants to improve their situation by studying and working. Unfortunately, there are many parents who were attracted to courses but never finished them or never tried to help themselves by doing something else.

Motivation to change a system can decrease. When we got sponsorship to provide courses to women suffering from domestic violence, we went to the women’s center where they get help. We invited 20 of them to our course and only one showed up. We were very embarrassed to tell trainers and sponsors that this had happened.

Running an NGO is the same as running a business. It is great when you have scholarships and grants to cover expenses, however there are many unpredictable expenses. So now we are switching to the model of social entrepreneurship. Starting from 2020 we will run courses for anyone who wants to attend: on a course for twenty women, ten will be for the general public and ten will be free for socially vulnerable women.

Be ready to work a full-time job. As I am a mother of a daughter with special needs, I started this company with the thought that it would be like a part-time job. As we started to grow, and after opening second branch in Almaty, we had to start working full time as well as travel to other cities.

Don’t be a perfectionist. It is ok to fail sometimes and react to any setbacks or mistakes more calmly and rationally.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The right to have a dream. When you are a child, you are dreaming all the time. By the time you are older and have adult responsibilities, you forget about your dreams. I believe that every person can fulfill their dreams and make our world a better place. We just need to remember to dream.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Tomorrow the sun will rise on all your doubts.”
Marty Rubin

After the diagnoses of my daughter, there were so many moments in hospitals where I thought our lives would never go smoothly again. But life really does go on, and doing anything you can give you results.

Is there a person in the world you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would really love to meet Angelina Jolie; she is always fighting for human rights and is incredibly inspiring.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’d recommend people visit my Facebook page. There is also my personal Instagram and Instagram for Mama Pro.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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