|© UNICEF Turkmenistan/2005|
|The Family Support Centre has a range of clubs and activities to keep children off the streets.|
By Lynn Levine
ABADAN, Turkmenistan, 12 September 2006 – Every day after school, Nadya, an unusually clever 11-year old girl, heads over to the Family Support Centre, a haven for youths in the Ashgabad suburb of Abadan. Today, Nadya will join several other neighbourhood children for a meeting of Smart Kids – a club focused on educating children about the law.
Smart Kids is one of many youth-oriented clubs provided by the Family Support Centre. Depending on the day, Nadya may join in the sewing club, take English classes or learn practical skills on one of the newly installed computer stations.
Activities like these are just one component of the Centre’s focus on serving disadvantaged families and families in crisis. The Family Support Centre also concentrates on empowerment, for children as well as whole families.
“Educating children on their rights, particularly vulnerable children or kids in broken homes, is part of the Centre’s goal to help families,” says Director Olga Shevchenko. “The main purpose of the Centre is to give children and families the help they need so that families can remain united.”
Ms. Shevchenko explains how this process works: “By engaging children, making them feel at home and accepted, and by creating a positive, active environment.” she says.
No child is left out
The variety of clubs at the Family Support Centre encourages valuable life skills such as social adaptation and interaction, as well as vocational training and income-generating skills. And because the groups include children from all backgrounds and economic levels, they also promote integration and equality. At the Centre, no child is left out, period.
Today, Nadya and some 14 other young members of Smart Kids will participate in a role playing exercise based on the principles defined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Nadya says, “The knowledge I will gain here will give me the power to say yes or no when I get older.”
The importance of collaboration
The Centre is staffed by five full-time employees, including one professional psychologist and eight volunteers. Ms. Shevchenko emphasizes the importance of partnering with professionals in crisis interventions, especially since the profession of social worker does not yet exist in Turkmenistan.
“We are pleased to have UNICEF’s technical assistance in alternative care services,” she says.
UNICEF Project Officer for Child Protection Jepbar Byashimov says of the collaboration, “These people are involved in the prevention of institutionalization and family breakdown. They help to fortify cooperation, as many sectors are directly involved in child protection.”
Periodically, school attendance records are forwarded to the Centre.
“Some kids tend to miss school and we work with them,” says Ms. Shevchenko. “We cooperate with the education department, so I have a database of orphans, disabled children, and kids registered with the juvenile police.”
When Batyr, age nine, started accumulating absences, a red flag was raised at the Centre. His parents, who adopted him when he was a toddler, had gotten a divorce. His mother, unable to cope with the demands of single parenthood, turned to substance abuse. Batyr was caught in the middle.
“Absenteeism is the first symptom indicating family problems. Getting these records gives us the power to intervene early.” Ms. Shevchenko explains.
Ms. Shevchenko invited Batyr’s mother over to the Centre for tea. Batyr’s mother learned that support was available, for both Batyr and for herself. Three years later, Batyr’s mom is one of the Centre’s most active volunteers, and Batyr is back on track at school.
A sense of satisfaction
Occasionally, the Centre is called upon to provide support to orphans in their transition to adulthood and independence. When 16-year old Artyom graduated from secondary school, he also left his friends at the residential care facility where he grew up.
By law, Artyom was given a place to live and a means towards earning a livelihood. But the reality has been difficult for Artyom. At the end of his work day as an assistant to the foreman at a local factory, he goes home to a room he was given in a home for retired people. Not surprisingly, he feels depressed, alone and hopeless.
Acting on a suggestion by UNICEF to pay a visit to the Family Support Centre, Artyom is now a regular participant in Centre activities, where Ms. Shevchenko has become his mentor. To meet the specific needs of children like Artyom, UNICEF is looking to expand the availability of community programmes like the Family Support Centre.
“There is a great sense of satisfaction in this work,” says Ms. Shevchenko. “Sometimes I am greeted on the street by people I helped years ago. But while I take pride in what I am doing, I give full credit to the volunteers and children themselves, who help attract more children to the Centre.”