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Community Based Early Childhood Centres – A Chance for Most Vulnerable Children

The smell of rain and wet grass hung heavy in the air that morning. A light mist enveloped the whole picturesque town of Zubin Potok and the nearby Gazivoda lake. It’s 7AM in the morning, and the town is still asleep, with only a muffled sound of a tractor being heard in the distance. 

As Danijela Milić unlocks the front door and steps into her yard, tiny droplets of water begin to graze her jacket. Looking up at the charcoal sky, she ambles quickly across her yard and into her hoary dust-ridden minivan. To her demise, the van doesn’t want to start. After several failed attempts, she begins to worry that she is not going to be able to pick up the children without a car, as she usually does it. She takes a few deep breaths, and decides to go on foot.

Scaling hills, following winding courses leading up to nearby villages, sometimes even going off the roads, she begins to gather the children. It took her longer than usual, but soon there were 10 children walking behind her, asking her questions of all sorts as they make their way to the Community Based Early Childhood centre.

 Danijela Milić, who picks the children up every day, is also their kinder garden teacher in the ‘Support inclusion of children from rural areas through provision of programme within Community Based Early Childhood Centres’ (CBECC), supported by UNICEF and implemented in partnership with the NGO Santa Marija.

The main cause of these centers is to improve access to early childhood development programs for the most marginalized and excluded children in rural areas. The CBECC in village Velji Breg, Zubin Potok municipality, makes it possible for children to attend kindergarten, even though their parents are not able to drive them to and back. These children’s parents are usually unemployed, living in poverty and cannot afford sending their kids to other kindergartens, where monthly fees must be paid.

Several times per year, aiming to identify and deliver the messages to the most vulnerable families, educators go on door-to-door visits to present the programme to parents, which is meant for children aged 3 to 6. “Some parents, we don’t need to convince because they know their children should be in this centre and that it’s a good way to socialize them,” Danijela said. “Others, on the other hand, don’t see the value of this program and we need to convince them, as when their kids go to pre-primary school, their period of adaptation is much longer than in children who were part of these activities.”

 Danijela believes there is a general feeling that early childhood development is not that important because it is not part of the regular school system, and as such is not mandatory. But this backfires as problems start arising later in these children’s lives.

Indeed, many marginalized children aged 3-6 in these areas make their first contact with a wider community in CBECCs. Part of Danijela’s duties is also creating a sense of belonging and community within these children. This is how they start building relationships, create their own identity and overcome personal obstacles.

Following the rules of the kindergarten, the children also develop a sense of independence and discipline - they are taught to always wash their hands after using the bathroom, to arrange their own beds after naps, take care of their shoes, etc. Children grow immensely in this CBECC and use the skills they learn in future endeavours such as pre-primary and primary school.

“There are many times when parents notice a difference in their kids,” Danijela said. “We teach these children about politeness and how to behave in public, like greeting people, or taking care of their belongings. These kind of things become habit and are the first things parents see as a change”.

The children come from different backgrounds and often do not speak the language properly, often twisting words. The kids in Velji Breg also learn a “school language” which they use at home. They even correct their parents.

 Danijela Milić finished school in Belgrade to become an educator and expresses that she derives great pleasure and fulfilment from her work at Velji Breg. “I like children! I have four of my own and I’m only 33,” she said. “My job can be exhausting. I believe I always need to be clean and look good in front of the children, because they see everything. I’m a role model for all of them, so I need to act as one.”

 Every month there is a plan of activities premeditated and developed in accordance to a ‘roadmap developmental cycle’ for a certain period of child life. There are different activities meant to cultivate children’s speech and creative abilities; regular lectures and workshops; but also psychologist visits to measure the children’s progress. But to Danijela, the most important activities are the doctor visits as part of the envisioned health activities.

 “The health facilitators and doctor visits are the most special moments for me,” Danijela said. “Children eat unhealthy food a lot. I can see this from what they bring with them when they leave home. I am always pushing for them to take some fruit with them, but somehow snacks is an easier solution for the parents.”

The doctor visits include discussions on nutrition, reinforcing what kind of foods children should consume more. “I’m not sure whether they believe the doctor because of her white coat, but when doctor presents this to children, most of them start consuming healthy food, and telling each-other what is healthy and what isn’t,” Danijela said.

 However, despite the proven benefits that these community centres give to 75 children in the area, they now risk to be closed-up permanently. Velji Breg and the other 3 existing CBECCs have not been working for 2 months now due to a lack of funds and insufficient institutional support.

“When the school year comes to an end, parents ask the educators whether the program is still going to be working in the next season, and sometimes we can’t give them an answer,” said Danijela.

 Tamara Slavkovic, Programme Assistant at UNICEF’s office in Zvecan, is in charge of monitoring and implementing Early Childhood Development programmes (ECD) and regularly visits the CBECCs. Tamara says that UNICEF started ECD programmes in South and North Kosovo because municipalities cannot afford opening kindergartens in rural areas; it’s simply not prioritized as a part of their budget. “This was a concern for child wellbeing and development that UNICEF took seriously and programmatically responded to. Considering the limited available funds, UNICEF programme has focused on the most marginalized families, unemployed parents, living in poverty in rural areas” she said.

UNICEF bought the equipment needed to run these centres and paid for the salary of the educators, whereas the cleaning of the premises, electricity and heating were a contribution of the local authorities.

Tamara expresses great concern about the future of these centres and is uncertain whether the acquisition of funds will be successful. “UNICEF is negotiating every year with the municipalities to include salaries of CBEC educators to their budget, but unfortunately commitment from municipal authorities towards this issue is limited,” she said.

“This is a lost opportunity for children, because the four hours they spend here at CBEC are more valuable than the whole day spent at home,” says Danijela. “Many of the children would not even be supervised at all if they can’t come to this CBEC. At the centre, I raise these children as my own; I can teach and educate them. Everyone is treated equally, as if they are my own children.”

 Although UNICEF is still in the process negotiating with the municipality and donors for funds, there is a high possibility that these CBECCs will in fact shut their doors, leaving many marginalized children in rural areas without a means to develop a sense of community, form their identity, impeding them to reach their full intellectual potential and creativity in the safe and protective environment.

 

 
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