Faced with a month of accrued vacation, I decided I did not want to spend it as a tourist, travelling. Instead, I hunted up an opportunity to build on the skills acquired during my term of service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine for the same sense of satisfaction. Eventually I found my way to Georgia and a small NGO, Child & Environment.
Why did I decide to work with Child & Environment? The organization came with favorable references and an established reputation for good work. I was impressed with the information I received regarding its funding. I also liked the fact that it had been founded by a group of women who felt moved to action by circumstances in their country in much the same way that my mother, along with two other women, felt moved to set up her first child care center in the States.
If my living and working with the children at the Sparrows Shelter run by Child & Environment had lived up to my initial expectations, it would have been pleasing enough. However, the experience proved richer and more gratifying than I could have imagined. I appreciated the opportunity to observe this dynamic, progressive and positive program at work.
Activities are geared toward developing gross and fine motor skills: writing, drawing, ping pong (table tennis), dodge ball, sewing, piano â€“ making a bed and the use of eating with utensils at meals. The care is broader and deeper than I've seen in other institutions, where effort is typically concentrated on feeding, clothing, and controlling the child's habits and routine.
The staff cares for the whole child with a gentle breaking of such habits as bad dreams and bedwetting. The children are reminded that there are additional clothes available because they are not used to having more than one outfit. I saw how the staff would help soothe the children's anxiety by offering two pieces of bread â€“ addressing security as well as hunger. They pay attention to the children's mood, not just their outward appearance or behavior. Their inner lives matter. This is invaluable as far as I'm concerned â€“ the backbone and major strength of the program. They teach the children to love, value and care for themselves in the simplest and most direct way possible.
The children are not "street children." They are kids, simply. They're individuals and the program seeks to explore the potential in each of them.
The teachers facilitate activities â€“ not lead them. They provide support when needed or when asked. They recognize the leadership potential in each child. After all, these children have already raised themselves without any proper parental authority or supervision.
The approach is practical and focused on promoting self-sufficiency. A good example of this is when the soccer ball needed air. I watched as the children got the air pump and tried to fix it themselves. When that didn't work, they asked someone to help, who then showed them how to do it. It was comical to watch the kids try to adjust to playing with a full ball, deciding to let some of the air out because they were used to a mushier feel. With proper shoes, I'm sure it would not have been a problem. In sandals, or barefoot, a firm ball proved too difficult to manage.
Problem-solving is something the children often handle themselves. Occasionally, a staff member may arbitrate. The staff recognizes that these children have a universe of knowledge, skills and experiences that are unique to their circumstance. They are resourceful. They are survivors. The program and its guiding organizational philosophy reflects a desire to hone these energies and focus them positively. The goal is to enhance children's natural tendency toward growth and exuberance, and to help acclimate them to a new environment.
The teachers set a good example and create habits that range from bedmaking to a general sense of fair play. No rules are posted, as I've seen in children's homes in Ukraine (and in kindergartens as well, for that matter). They guide by encouraging the best in each child.
Most of the staff has been with the shelter since it opened. A benefit of this nearly-zero percent turnover rate is the sense of permanence and stability it gives the children. With time, relationships deepen between the staff and children. I quickly realized just how long some of the children had been living at the shelter and how invested the caregivers were in the success of each child. These men and women remembered what the children were like when they first arrived, and were very proud of the progress in healing and general function (both social and emotional) each had attained.
Imagine this. When the children first get here, they generally don't know how to hold a pencil or pen and have never used a spoon, knife, or fork. They are not able to speak because they are not encouraged to articulate their thoughts when living on the streets or in abusive households. Their vocabulary is limited. They are worked out of all this with gentle probing, simple questions, and genuine interest.
One can see the difference between those still on the street and those who live at the shelter. More importantly, they are able to see the difference. It was fascinating to observe how children accustomed to the comfort of shelter life, were able to treat those just off the street with patience and sympathy. They took it upon themselves to assist others. I was humbled to see how those with presumably so little to offer, offered what little they had. Children traded shoes as needed, and shared clothes as much out of friendship as general necessity.
The children were always sensitive to the idea of running out of food. The shelter had the children help lead the food onto the bus. They left the food out in the open for them for them to see the cases of donated fruit and powdered milk. They were impressed by the weight of the crates and teased that we were probably never coming back to the city by the amount of food we were carrying up to the mountains. The children commented that we had enough to survive even a war. This was particularly heart-wrenching coming from survivors of the civil war that had taken place in Georgia just a few years ago.
It was with much fanfare, no sleeping bags, bug spray or sunblock, that we made our way to the campsite.
In open spaces under the shadow of mountains, it is beautiful to watch as the children come into their own. You can see them emerging in the open air, in a new environment. Relieved of the necessity of fighting against the hardships of the street, or the complications of a broken family, the children are allowed to heal and grow. They demonstrated initiative in constructing and outlining a football (soccer) field using the ash from the campfire. They also took it upon themselves to construct a swimming pool of sorts, using large rocks in the river to divert water. The camp guides served as terrific role models, taking an active interest in the children. They helped instill a respect for the world around them, and supported the curiosity and sense of adventure in each of the children.
It was a real treat. It was therapeutic. It was fun. And when it was scary, the children worried about bears, not the violence of men. We made bracelets and found strange bugs. No one had to look for food or beg for money.