KonekTas – connect, share, support
Volunteer service and interactive platform for practitioners and faculty students.
Belgrade, 8 September 2020 – "Volunteering at KonekTas is the best thing that happened to me during my studies. Because listening to social workers, practitioners, solving problems in the field, we, the students, were actually ‘stealing’ the craft.” With these words, Nevena Janjic, who just graduated from the Department of Social Work and Social Policy, welcomes us to the Faculty of Political Sciences.
Professor Nevenka Zegarac and practical training teachers Ivana Seratlic and Slavica Milojevic explain how this volunteer service and interactive platform for practitioners and faculty students was created in cooperation with UNICEF and with the financial support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
“The idea for the creation of KonekTas came from the need of the teaching staff to make the volunteering of students, our future social workers, safe during the coronavirus pandemic,” says Slavica.
Already at the start of the pandemic, in April, as many as 30 students applied. It became clear then that practitioners also needed a place to connect and share information.
“People working in social protection and related professions simply had nowhere to come together and share their troubles or dilemmas. We then invited practitioners and NGOs who were on the ground to join us. They were facing great difficulties because, without instructions and directions, they had to work with the most vulnerable groups in society, with children in institutions and foster families, with victims of violence, refugees and migrants, and people with mental health problems,” explains Professor Nevenka Zegarac, who has been involved in the work of KonekTas from day one.
The idea quickly came to life. In the first three months alone, 7 webinars, 4 of which were regional, 10 supervisory meetings and 17 discussion groups were organized.
Numerous practitioners, students from other faculties, experts from non-governmental organizations, psychologists, defectologists, pedagogues, and sociologists from the country and the region responded to the invitation to actively participate in the work of the platform. The total number of participants in three months reached 600. The topics, chosen by the practitioners through a questionnaire, covered a wide range of needs during the COVID-19 crisis: from the urgent care of women and children due to domestic violence, the role of the Red Cross and shelters, to the protection of refugee and migrant children, support for the homeless and phone counselling, to examples of good practice and community initiatives.
At the same time, in order to obtain the information and resources, the volunteers and the faculty staff translated and published on the KonekTas platform and social media the latest instructions and recommendations from all relevant global institutions in the field of health care and social protection.
Nevena, from the beginning of our story, has known since she was in high school that being a social worker was her calling. So, immediately after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, she was sure that she wanted to volunteer.
"From the start, I oversaw the writing of reports from webinars and discussions and gathering information for the database. I mostly focused on my part of the country, Jagodina, Cuprija, Paracin and Despotovac, so I researched which resources are offered to practitioners by local self-governments and the state, and which are offered by NGOs. This gave me a broader picture of who can help us in the work with our beneficiaries. KonekTas added to my knowledge of social work. It was particularly helpful that I learned from the best,” says Nevena.
Tamara Benderac graduated a year ago from the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and has since enrolled in a master's degree course in Slovenia. However, she did not hesitate to immediately contact her colleagues in Belgrade, wanting to help. She started gathering good practice examples from the region during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We organized Zoom meetings with colleagues so that they could talk about their experiences, how they coped with difficult situations, but also about the positive aspects of their work, initiatives and activities that came up from this new and difficult situation. All the discussion groups were therapeutic because we had the freedom to open up and talk about our dilemmas, fears and problems. We can use all that in our future practice,” explains Tamara.
Caring for the mental health of helpers, i.e. practitioners, was singled out as one of the most important topics on the platform, because as the practical training teachers say – you can't help anyone if you are not safe and secure yourself.
“On Mondays, we would organize webinars and discussions on this very topic so that practitioners could share their concerns and emotions. It’s important to know that social workers have a dual role, to help others, but also to take care of their families. This was especially difficult for those working in care facilities, who had to be closed in with beneficiaries for up to 15 days. They had fears and concerns about their own lives and at the same time, they had the task of organizing their work to avoid the spread of the virus,” explains practical training teacher Ivana Seratlic.
She also says, “sometimes there are up to 150 beneficiaries per one practitioner, which shows just how overburdened they are”. That, among other things, led to the creation of the column "Untold Stories of Social Workers", where practitioners write about their experiences, challenges, motivation, problems, concerns.
“KonekTas is important because it put emphasis on social workers who are marginalized precisely because they work with marginalized groups. This is a difficult, complex and undervalued profession, with a predominantly female workforce. That’s why they, as helpers, need help and support in order to do their best to represent those who are the most vulnerable and whose voices are not heard,” says Professor Zegarac.
KonekTas has made social workers more visible in society, and with its proactivity, it spreads a positive story about the profession, all interviewees agree.
“For students, volunteering at KonekTas is primarily an educational resource and there is no better practice than managing in the real world and solving the problem. That’s why this is a good initiative that has a future,” Professor Zegarac proudly concludes.