Today's children, today's future
By Lynn Levine
Every day after school, Nadya, an unusually clever 11-year-old girl, heads over to the Family Support Centre in the Ashgabad suburb of Abadan. Depending on the day, she’ll join in the sewing club, take English classes or learn practical skills using one of the newly-installed computer stations. Today, Nadya and around 14 other of the neighbourhood’s more exceptional children are gathering for a meeting of “Smart Kids,” a club centred on educating children about the law, both national and international, and how it applies to them. The exercise: role play on principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The centre is all about empowerment, for children, for parents and for families. For Nadya, the knowledge she will gain in “Smart Kids” will give her the power “to say yes or no when I get older.” Educating children on their rights, particularly vulnerable children or kids in broken homes, is part of the Centre’s goal “to help families,” according to Olga Shevchenko, the Director of the centre. The main purpose of the centre is to give children and families the help they need so that families can remain united. How do they do this? “By engaging children, making them feel at home and accepted, by creating a positive, active environment,” the Director says. In times of hardship, access to support networks or Youth to Work programmes, for example, can be a question of sink or swim.
“Some kids tend to miss school and we work with them,” said Olga, explaining that school attendance records get periodically forwarded to the centre. “We cooperate with the education department, so I have a database of orphans, disabled children, and kids registered with the juvenile police.” When Batyr, 9, started accumulating absences, this raised a red flag for the Centre. “Absenteeism is the first symptom indicating family problems; getting these records gives us the power to intervene early.” Batyr’s 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.
Director’s “intervention” consisted of inviting Batyr’s mother over to the centre for tea. In this way, 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, having never really been left to veer off.
Sometimes the Centre is called upon to provide support to orphans in their transition to adulthood, and independence. When sixteen-year-old Artyom graduated from secondary school, he also waved goodbye to his friends at the residential care facility where he grew up. By law, Artyom would be given a place to live and a means towards earning a livelihood. But the reality has been difficult for Artyom to process: at the end of his work day as an assistant to the foreman at a local factory, Artyom goes home to the room he was given in a home for retired people. Not surprisingly, he feels depressed, alone, and hopeless. But acting on an earlier suggestion by UNICEF to pay a visit to the Centre in Abadan, Artyom is now a regular participant in centre activities, and Olga has become a sort of mentor to him in adapting to the routine of daily life. To meet the specific needs of children like Artyom, and families at risk of creating new Artyoms, UNICEF would like to expand the availability of this type of community centre.
The centre is staffed by five full-time employees, including one professional psychologist, and eight volunteers. “These people are involved in the prevention of institutionalization and family breakdown," explains Jepbar Byashimov, UNICEF Project Officer for Child Protection. “They help to fortify inter-sectoral cooperation, as many sectors are directly involved in child protection.”
Centre activities are all components of the centre’s focus of serving disadvantaged families and families in crisis. Clubs support valuable life skills such as social adaptation and interaction; because all groups are inclusive of children from all backgrounds and economic levels, they promote integration and equality. Depending on one’s interests, be it in word working, sewing, computers or foreign languages, activities also impart vocational training and income-generating skills. And here, no child is left out, period.
The director of the Centre emphasizes the importance of engaging professionals in crisis interventions - psychologists and counsellors, for example. In Turkmenistan, the profession of social worker does not yet exist. “We are pleased to have UNICEF’s technical assistance in alternative care services,” she says. UNICEF proceeds based on the principle that the family is the best environment for a child and alternative care services fill a critical need in keeping children out of residential facilities and in caring, nurturing homes.
“There is a great sense of satisfaction in this work. 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.”
For more information, please contact Ms. Gulyalek Soltanova, UNICEF Communication Officer, at:
Phone: +99312 425681/82/86/86
Fax: +99312 420830