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Toy Story

Babies love the Chlätterbär shop swissinfo.ch

This week the Swiss are getting the chance to demonstrate their sense of fun at the country's biggest annual toy fair in Bern.

This content was published on September 25, 2002 - 12:23

Two hundred exhibitors from Switzerland and abroad are displaying toys and games of all shapes and sizes, from the traditional to the latest computer games.

Making a comeback 80 years after it first tested the nation's balancing skills is the pogo stick.

Alarm clocks have also been given a makeover from a company called Aaabsolut Ansorg, whose timepieces can be deactivated by chucking them against the wall.

And Nintendo is likely to pull the crowds with its Jetski, a new Gamecube accessory offering virtual high-speed thrills.

Amid the flashy novelties, old-fashioned wooden toys may seem to take a back seat.

But unlike the new-fangled playthings whose popularity waxes and wanes, wooden doll's houses, trains with smiling drivers, and diehard Noahs with their arks and wooden animals, have proved themselves to be ever-popular stalwarts of the toy world.

GEWA, an exhibitor at this year's Toy Fair, is one of the more remarkable success stories in this field.

Risk-taking

GEWA stands for "Gemeinsam wagen", literally translated as "Taking risks together".

And founder Martin L Ryser is not averse to a little gambling himself, strictly in the business sense.

He was managing the Bern University Psychiatric Clinic when he realised that patients there were having difficulty leading "normal" lives because they were unable to find work.

Many were depressed, under-challenged and lacking in self-confidence. Ryser set up an association, employing 20 people with psychological problems.

They were able to learn new skills, create products for competitive markets, and earn some extra money to supplement their invalidity pensions.

That was 16 years ago. In 2000, the association became a foundation and it now employs 200 people - 50 of them trainers and team leaders.

For the past two years, GEWA has been making a profit, and Ryser describes the result as "a miracle".

Climbing Bear

GEWA is now a major producer of wooden products. Brightly-coloured toys made at the workshop in Zollikofen, a suburb of Bern, are sold at the company's charming city centre toy shop "Chlätterbär" (Climbing Bear).

Stepping into the establishment, one enters an enchanted world of teddy bears on rocking horses, musical boxes, wicker doll's prams, wooden diggers for would-be builders, stilts, puppets and musical instruments that clang and tinkle.

Roland Margot , the company's marketing manager, believes people continue to be fascinated by toys made of wood because it is a natural, warm product.

"People feel safe and comfortable with it," he says.

Martin Ryser regrets that, due to stiff competition in toy manufacturing from Eastern Europe in particular, GEWA is no longer able to make the playthings from scratch.

The raw materials - wood from sustainable Swiss forests - are sawn into shape at huge factories in the Czech Republic and sent back to Zollikofen for assembly.

GEWA also makes a range of products such as breadboards and clothes stands, sold through the World Wide Fund for Nature's catalogue.

GEWA branches out

The enterprise has two factories for its many industries.

In one building, lamps are assembled, old computers are taken apart and reconditioned for the Swiss post office. Umbrellas are also reconditioned, and earpieces for hearing aids are moulded.

In another, pots and ceramic animals, pictures and kites are created - all under the guidance of team leaders trained in the relevant disciplines.

Meanwhile, other staff members are out and about on landscape gardening projects, always with a supervisor. Others staff the company's second-hand shop in the city.

"What we do is closely linked to private enterprise," Ryser told swissinfo.

"We want to perform well without putting our staff under pressure, but by allowing them to realise their own sense of worth in society".

Healing Process

Ryser says he has noticed a huge difference in the psychological well-being of his staff since they started working for him.

"What we do here is accompany people for a few steps along the road. Some go their own way when they reach a crossroads. Others stay for a while on the GEWA path," he says.

It is a pleasant working environment with light and airy offices and cafeterias on each floor.

The working day starts with a coffee break. Roland Margot says it's important that staff begin each day by looking each other in the eye.

Employees can choose how many days per week they work, but no one works on Fridays.

They are also allowed to switch between the different disciplines, to enable them to learn new skills.

Shining Example

Andrea Ledergeber has been working at GEWA for a year now. She quickly tired of her first job, folding boxes, and was allowed to switch to the arts and crafts department.

She has recently been sewing accessories for an orthopaedic company, for whom she is now considering doing an apprenticeship.

"It's great how the team leaders tailor the work to suit the employees' individual capabilities," she said.

Andrea works 50 per cent and is attending adult education classes in her spare time.

"Since I've been here, I've really become much more stable," she added.

Few visitors to the GEWA stall at the Swiss Toy Fair in Bern will realise what their purchases mean to the company staff.

Every sale enables the foundation to continue its vital work of helping people who are marginalized in society. What for some is just a game, for others is a ticket to a better life.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt

Key facts

Psychological disorders are the biggest cause of invalidity in Switzerland
People with psychological problems find it hard to get a job
This makes them feel unwanted and increases their sense of isolation
GEWA teaches them new skills
Many employees go on to find jobs in open, competitive markets

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In brief

GEWA is an exhibitor at this week's Swiss Toy Fair in Bern.

swissinfo looks behind the scenes at the team of people assembling the wooden toys for their display.

Most of them have psychological disorders and working for GEWA enables them to get a first foot on the employment ladder.

End of insertion

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