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Real lives

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Marco and Denis on their regular walk and chess match in the City Park in Skopje.

Skopje, October 2011: In the Centre for Social Work in Skopje a group of fifteen young people are sitting in a circle waiting for their turn to speak.  They are so eager and engaged that one might think they are a group of friends who came together to catch up and share their summer holiday highlights. In fact these young people are students from the Faculty of Philosophy.  They've come to meet with a team of professionals from the Centre for Social Work and University professors to share achievements and challenges of their mentoring work with children in conflict with the law.

Denis, 22 years old, a student in his final year of study in social sciences at the Faculty of Philosophy, is one of them.  He enthusiastically shares his experience with his mentee Marco, a seventh grader who got in trouble with the law a year ago.

“When I first met my mentee Marco, he was in a delicate emotional state. He was visibly upset, hyper-active, over-talkative. His school grades were poor. I helped him channel his energy to positive activities, like sport, reading, school,” says Denis.

Although they have now established good rapport, according to Denis it took Marko some four months to open up.  Last year Marco discovered a family secret that caused him tremendous grief which in turn affected his performance at school.  Then one day, in a moment of anger, he made a wrong decision and broke the law.

“Telling me his family secrets was  important in itself because it was a sign that I have gained his trust, but my main goal is to help Marco see his own strengths and build self-confidence,” says Denis. 

Children like Marco need positive examples, role models that give support during difficult times and inspire them to make sound choices.

This is why UNICEF, introduced a pilot Mentoring Programme as part of the Justice for Children Project that is funded by European Union and co-funded by UNICEF. The programme pairs up social work students - like Denis - with children - like Marco - who need help to make a new start in life.

“We do simple things together - playing chess in the City Park, working together to improve his school grades; we go on different outings – to the cinema, sport centres so that Marco can get back into a normal routine, and we can also talk about issues important to him such as school, staying away from trouble, relationships with family and future plans,” continues Denis.

Helping children correct their wrongs and supporting them so they don’t make the same mistake

The concept of the mentoring builds on the traditional one-to-one mentoring model in which an older individual (mentor) engages in building a healthy and trusting relationship with a child (mentee).  Mentors work in partnership with social workers, concerned families and parents, and communities.
UNICEF is piloting the programme in the capital Skopje in partnership with the Institute of Social Work and Social Policy, Faculty of Philosophy at the University of St. Cyril and Methodius and the Inter-municipal Centre for Social Work in Skopje. 

Prevention of juvenile delinquency and rehabilitation of children in conflict with the law are the basic objectives of the justice for children reform in the country.  However, some eight in ten convicted children are later accused of new offenses.  The mentoring programme can help to reduce this high level of recidivism.

Through the EU funded (€700,000) and UNICEF co-funded (€100,000) and implemented project, Denis and his colleagues, together with some twelve professional staff from the Centre for Social Work Skopje received thorough training to be able to fulfil their roles.  Pivotal to the programme has been the role of the Centre for Social Work staff.  They identified the first group of children in conflict with the law to be part of the pilot programme; they have been providing guidance and advice to the young mentors and are carefully following their progress through monthly reports and almost daily communication with both mentors and the families of children.

“I want to be like you”

 “Parents of children in conflict with the law, including the parents of the fifteen children involved in our pilot programme, are often far from being role models. Busy earning a living, caught up in family disputes, parents fail to help the child get through crucial period of growing up,” says Sanja Bogoevska, psychologist at the Centre for Social Work.

At the meeting social work experts agree that becoming a friend to a child from a different social and educational background, in some cases from a different ethnic community and opposite sex, and, in virtually every case involving a child with specific vulnerabilities, is everything but easy. 

But the mentors share stories about the success of their efforts, such as the story of how the child - who was always late to meetings - learned to be punctual; another learned that he should not ride a bus without a ticket and to cross the road using the marked pedestrian crossings; how a distracted child became focused and improved his final grades at school; and, how new horizons opened for one child after visiting a university.

They also share stories about the challenges: skeptical parents who opposed the mentor; children who tried to trick their way out of fulfilling their promises, children who had emotional ups and downs.  But, as the Center for Social Work coordinators proudly say, “none of the mentees have committed an offense during the mentoring phase.”

“What matters to me is that I help him see that there are plenty of good choices out there.”

At the end of the monthly coordination meeting the social workers discuss future strategies with the mentors.

“The project is now entering a phase where good mentor-mentee relationships are in place; their meetings are less guided by the mentor and are more child-driven.  It is now time to focus on building the child’s ability to keep up the good school grades and remain involved in out of school activities that are creative and positive, even when the older friend is no longer around,” said Suncica Dimitrijovska, Faculty of Philosophy Professor.

As Denis concluded in his meeting report, “What matters to me is that I help him see that there are plenty of good choices out there and that it is up to him to decide which choice to make.“  And indeed the programme is showing its initial results.  As for Marko, Denis has helped him to discover his own strengths. While being a student with poor grades only a year ago, Marco finished this school year with the best grades in his class and chose to learn English over the summer break.



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