One Step Closer to Walking: How Collaborative Municipal Efforts Worked Together to Break Stigma

Natalia was born with Cerebral Palsy, a disease caused by damage to the motor control centres of the developing brain.

Sonja Miokovic
Natalia smiles in class
UNICEF Serbia/2010

01 February 2010

Nine-year-old Natalia always sits at the front of the class. It is her favourite place to be.

She is an eager student with a record of straight 'A's.

When the school bell rings in the end of the day her classmates rush out of the classroom and burst into the school yard. Natalia watches them with a smile and shouts personal greetings to her many friends.

The chatter of school children instantly fades close to silent other than the familiar sounds of teachers shuffling papers and janitors sweeping floors.

She shoots a glance to the front-right corner of the classroom where her wheelchair stands wedged between the wall and the bookshelf then up to the clock and waits for her dad to come pick her up. This is her daily routine. 

Natalia was born with Cerebral Palsy (CP), a disease caused by damage to the motor control centres of the developing brain.

She has trouble controlling her muscles. They are tight and constricting and will not listen when she wants to loosen them up.

“I’m the only girl in a wheelchair,” says Natalia, “But I am no different than the others.”

However, this young girl has inspired change and together with the efforts of the Local Plans of Action (LPA) for children getting Natalia one step closer to walking has become a community effort. 

In 2004 the Government of Serbia committed itself to improving the lives of children across the country by adopting the National Plan of Action for Children (NPA).

The goal of the document was to ensure equality, accessibility, quality and efficiency of all public services for all children without exception.

In cooperation with UNICEF the Local Plans of Action for children (LPA) program was launched to bring the Rights of the Child to life on the local level.

The aim was to make cities fit for children across Serbia by fine-tuning strategic goals and priorities to meet specific local needs. It is a process whereby municipalities identify problem areas and then take concrete steps to resolve them though cross-sector collaboration.

Simply put, it is a locally created strategic document, a roadmap, which outlines specific action plans that lead to child-friendly cities. 

“LPA helps identify those children who are most in need and provides local solutions to makes sure they are included in the system,” explains UNICEF Education Specialist and LPA Program Manager Svetlana Marojevic. 

LPA has had direct impact on the awareness and mobilization of the local community in terms of child rights.

In the case of Bela Palanka, one of Serbia’s poorest municipalities, one of their top priorities was supporting children with disabilities.

Since the program launched in 2005, LPA has inspired the principles of social inclusion to be implemented in education centres across Bela Palanka.

Parents, teachers and social workers now have data and an official document to mobilize efforts and build awareness for children with disabilities, whether developmental or physical. 

“When it comes to children with disabilities the results are obvious,” says Bela Palanka’s LPA coordinatorLetica Lilic,who fights fiercely to bring the issues out into the open.

“We have over come many challenges since we started with LPA and for this we are very proud. Our top priority was to help children with disabilities. To realize these priorities we decided to help Natalia. We wanted to support her medical treatment.” 

But before this was possible the whole community’s mindset had to be shifted. Breaking barriers and creating awareness were key to unlocking the community’s potential to overcoming stigma.

"This may not seem like much but Bela Palanka is a small town. We face a different set of challenges than the big cities. Things that may seem normal there are much harder to achieve here because of a difference in mentality. We are up against greater stigma. But that is why it makes it even more important that we work together to change the lives of these children," says Lilic.

In order to kick-start the process of social inclusion, the LPA team decided to bring all children with disabilities out into the public domain.

Leticia organized an open door to the city, where the children gathered in the caucus to meet the mayor.

“When I started to talk about this initiative the reaction was, ‘Are you normal? Don’t you know that those kids kick, scream, act out and so on?” they asked her.

“I started to doubt myself but when I start something I finish it. So I continued and insisted that all children come out into the open.”

In the end, the event was a huge success and almost all children in the municipality with disabilities attended.

“They were overjoyed to be seen, to be acknowledged,” says Lilic.

“For many of these children this was the first time they were pulled out of isolation and with an invitation. They didn’t know that there were other kids like them in town. From that day, I feel the community’s mindset started to change and the children were seen out in the open more often.”

The event also attracted significant media attention and sparked an ongoing debate among the people of Bela Palanka.

Thus, the foundation was set, children with disabilities were now in the public eye.

The LPA team built on this momentum and continued planning community events and outreaches.

These activities helped build compassion among community members and opened up opportunities for social mobilization and change. The results are evident in the communities generosity. 

Natalia in class
UNICEF Serbia/2010

After three successful laser therapy operations supported in-part by funds from a separate municipal LPA budget line and community fundraising efforts, the results have been phenomenal.

Notably, Natalia has gained what she desires most, aside from being able to walk, a bit more independence in caring for herself, from being able to roll over in the night, to brushing her own hair and getting dressed in the mornings. 

The whole community celebrated when they witnessed the results.

"When she showed us she could almost walk the whole room froze for about three minutes until we all burst into tears," remembers Natalia’s preschool teacher Dragana Brankovic.

The positive impact of this initiative has inspired the greater community, especially in achieving the greater goal of social inclusion. 

Brankovic, reminisces of the many times Natalia brought smiles to someone’s face or tears to their eyes.

"The children witnessed that we need to go forward together. That you really do have to believe in yourself."

“Before Natalia things were different,” says Brankovic.

"I was adamant on integrating Natalia into the classroom and helping break the stigma that faces the many children with physical and mental disabilities. I was instantly motivated by active inclusion and excited at the opportunity to work together.”

Through a process of trial-and-error the class worked together to support one another.

“At first, I tried to accommodate her needs. For example, I always told the children, 'Nata needs to do exercises. She needs to use her muscles.' After some time they responded with, 'Why can't we all do it together?'

Then we started doing group exercises to help her walk. They caught on quickly and started to take the lead on caring and watching out for Natalia. And I learned what ‘inclusion’ is really all about."

This is a big year for Natalia. After four years of home schooling, operations and physical training, she is now back in school with her classmates.

Once tense and not able to bend her arms and legs, she now gained some mobility and can hold her weight on her feet. When her dad arrives to pick her up from school, he helps her walk to her wheelchair.

LPA helped Bela Palanka identify the challenges met by children with disabilities and opened up the channels to overcome them together as a community.