Most discussions about the success of transition in Hungary and the other Visegrad states usually conclude in debates about social value systems. There is general agreement that generations who grew up under dictatorial regimes tend to be more passive, closed, defensive, survival-oriented, less ready to initiate, less entrepreneurial, less independent, less socially minded and less geared towards personal expression than those who grew up in a democracy. It is also a well-known fact from personal development psychology that early nurturing is the key to socialisation and personality: by age three, most aspects of personal habitus are already in place, and by age seven we have an essentially fully formed personality in terms of the underlying habitus.
A holistic unity of health and personal development
It logically follows that the social agents of early nurturing matter enormously. The kindergarten environment play a decisive role in who we will be. It is this crucial issue that a Hungarian NGO, the “Think Healthy Project”, decided to target. They provide expert advice to parents, kindergarten teachers and other professionals who would like to develop a practical approach to early nurturing in a more holistic way. The project does not restrain itself to a single methodology, but aims instead at a vision of a healthy personality, whose physical side (nutrition, exercise) is in synch with the psychological side (self expression, openness, self-management skills). This is a much needed meme in a society that knows full well that it suffers from pessimism, depression and social atomisation, as well as one of the worst physical health records in the EU.
The team is lead by Márta Bácskai, an elected member of the Ashoka group of ‘social entrepreneurs’, leaders who use skills transferred from business life to create sustainable ventures to create change in favour of a social cause. She was also recently awarded the Hungarian ‘Good Person’ award, further boosting her leverage in the media to promote her cause. When explaining the deepest roots of her dedication to this fundamental issue, Márta, like most other social entrepreneurs, goes back to her childhood. She had a stable middle-class upbringing in Strasbourg, yet she remembers herself as a tense, chubby kid, loaded with severe personality problems that she had to overcome. And overcome she did. She is a stunningly beautiful woman today, with a personal charm that she makes good use of. Her conversation is focused and collected: not a word more and not a word less than what is necessary. Her personal example comes across as a decisive asset in creating awareness around the project.
A deeply personal dedication
Márta gave up a successful business career in Monaco for this job. She thinks of herself more as a manager who brings together experts and professionals. Residing in a large open space office and model daycare training centre in a former inner-city factory building redeveloped into a public space with a lake and a park, the Think Healthy Project works with more than 1,500 of the 3,000 kindergartens across the country. Márta is very conscious about keeping the project from becoming a middle-class venture that is accessible only in rich districts of Budapest, which would further exacerbate the already massive differences in the quality of education across the socio-geographical divide in the country. Among others, they work closely with some of the most deprived kindergartens in northeast Hungary. She describes how freshly graduated kindergarten teachers are seeking advice on how to translate the theoretical knowledge they had acquired at college into practical skills that can be applied on a daily basis. The project also works together with the model kindergartens that serve as further training centres for nursery teachers.
A sustainable project
The project is financed entirely from corporate sponsors. Like most regional NGOs, they found funding difficult at the beginning, but by raising awareness about themselves, they have managed to win the hearts and minds of managers who identify with the vision that drives them. Some companies see them partially as an access point to reach the young generations and their parents with healthy products that fit into the philosophy of the project. Increasingly, however, corporate leaders are backing the project because they have realised its importance. All staff are paid rather than volunteers, hinting at a high degree of sustainability for the project, which has been gaining ground for a good nine years now.
One of their current ambitions is to demonstrate the impact the changes in practice induced by their advice make in the development of the small children they have managed to reach indirectly. The Think Healthy Project is a key initiative to keep an eye on, and perhaps a model for other countries in the region.