It started with ten disabled and non-disabled people living together in a small flat. Now the Gruppo 78 cooperative has grown into a regional network of residential and day centres, protected housing, employment projects and workshops, providing assistance to hundreds of people with mental health and social problems.
The current director, Santo Boglioni, was also one of the original members. He was originally involved in the Capodarco community, a group of volunteers and disabled people who had been living together in an old villa in the Marche region of Italy since 1966, supporting and encouraging the reinsertion of physically disabled people into society.
In 1978, Boglioni was among a group of 10 people, six of them disabled, who decided to leave Capodarco and start their own community. They moved to Volano, in the northeastern region of Trentino, because one of the women in the group was from there. “We moved into a small flat, 50 square metres, with 10 people living together, without any sources of income or work,” recalled Boglioni. They formed an association based on the values of cohabitation, sharing and self-management, and started a metal workshop in the basement of the house, making artworks from copper and bronze. “We were self-financing,” said Boglioni. “We paid all the money we made from selling the artworks into a communal fund, and we had no salaries.”
The association became a cooperative in 1981, and over the next few years began expanding and adapting itself to emerging needs in the Trentino region. In 1978, Italy’s Law 180 closed down mental hospitals, shifting the burden of psychiatric care on to society and local communities. “They were putting young people in their twenties into old people’s homes because they didn’t know where else to put them,” said Boglioni.
The changes in the Italian welfare system led to Gruppo 78 shifting to a focus on people with mental health problems, as well as former prisoners, drug addicts and other disadvantaged groups. By now the cooperative had moved into larger premises, and after 1984 provincial legal changes meant it could access public funding. It began building up a team of professionals who could manage more complex situations, running residential centres and setting up workshops for carpentry, bookbinding and manufacturing beekeeping masks.
In 1990 came the cooperative’s first really big investment, the purchase of a farmstead in Isera. “We weren’t even sure at the time that we would get public help. We were relying on a lot of volunteers! It was an investment of a billion lire. It was a big risk, but it proved fruitful in the end,” said Boglioni.
Indeed, the “Progetto Teseo” now being run from the farm in Isera is still producing organic jams, syrups and other preserves, offering employment and training to people with psychosocial and mental problems.
Through the 1990s, Gruppo 78 kept expanding, managing more residential and day centres and employment and training workshops, as well as organizing initiatives to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around mental illness and encourage community development.
The cooperative now has 50 employees, 68 members and around 150 users. According to Boglioni, it is constantly looking to evolve. “We’ve always wanted to open the door to new needs that come knocking,” he said. One new initiative provides more support for families in their homes to avoid conflicts and reduce the number of people who need to be taken into care. “We want to keep families together,” said Boglioni.
In a similar attempt to help the disadvantaged stay in society rather than be sidelined into institutional care, Gruppo 78 has been setting up a number of semi-protected flats. Three or four people can live together semi-autonomously, providing each other with support and giving them the opportunity to rejoin society. In many ways, they represent a return to the cooperative’s origins: small communities of people living together and helping each other, based on those same values of cohabitation, sharing and self-management.