By Erin Nicholson, ChildFund Staff Writer
Last year in Belarus, a young man named Vlad passed the Baranovichi University entrance exams. A significant but fairly routine achievement, perhaps, except that Vlad was born with cerebral palsy. And in Belarus, his acceptance into college was nothing short of groundbreaking.
Although cognitively Vlad is very capable — he can quote Dumas with ease and loves classical literature by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky — the palsy makes his speech unclear, and he has trouble writing or using a keyboard. He almost missed out on going to college altogether; over and over he was prevented from taking entrance exams because students weren’t allowed any kind of assistance during the tests.
His break finally came after the vice rector of Baranovichi University attended a ChildFund-supported training on inclusive education, the USAID-funded project Community Services to Vulnerable Groups. She shared her new knowledge with colleagues, and Vlad was able to take the exam by answering questions verbally. He passed and even had the highest scores among all applicants that year.
In Belarus, more than 26,000 children are considered to have a disability and as many as 120,000 have special educational needs, according to UNICEF. These are alarmingly high numbers, especially for a country with just under 9.5 million people, and have nearly tripled since 1990. A complex mix of problems may be to blame, including the lingering effects of post-Soviet Union economic depression and the trauma of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion nearly 30 years ago.
There is not any direct evidence proving that long-term radiation exposure caused an increase in health problems in Belarus, but the economic devastation following the disaster resulted in widespread post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety throughout the population. Along with chronically high unemployment, the prevalence of smoking, alcoholism and overall poor nutrition contribute to an increase in disease and disabilities.
And in a country with limited economic resources, the infrastructure to support children who need assistance just isn’t there. So what happens to them? Institutionalization and exclusion from family and society is common, and children with disabilities, who are often seen as a burden or even an embarrassment, overwhelm orphanages. Rarely do they receive the physical, cognitive and emotional support they need — much less an education. The communities in Belarus where we work have seen some improvement, with the number of institutionalized children dropping to an average of 6 percent in 2009, down from the national average of 25 percent.
With the right support, life for these children can be better. As of 2012, 4,000 children and family members benefited from the USAID-funded inclusive education project. Vlad is gaining an education, as well as future opportunities and more independence. After college, he hopes to become a lawyer and fight for the rights of people with disabilities.
Recently, Belarus leaders have begun to prioritize inclusive education for children with disabilities, thanks in part to groundbreaking cases like Vlad’s and the work by ChildFund and other groups. More children are in a position to become leaders and have greater hope for the future, just like Vlad hopes to be.
Consider contributing to ChildFund’s Fund a Project for children living with disabilities in Belarus, giving them access to necessary classroom equipment. You can keep the momentum going for Vlad and other young people.
By Elena Karpenko, ChildFund Belarus
As we conclude our 75th anniversary blog series, we are focusing on success stories of youth and alumni from ChildFund’s programs in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe. Today, we meet Oleg of Belarus, in Eastern Europe.
Belarus’ 119,000 children with special needs, including about 30,000 with disabilities, often have problems gaining access to good education and services. They also cope with deeply ingrained social exclusion.
Oleg, a teenage boy who is affected by musculoskeletal issues, often felt like he couldn’t express himself. He wanted to show others that his life has meaning, but Oleg didn’t have the tools.
But life took a turn for the better when Oleg enrolled in a course offered by ChildFund Belarus called Leadership Without Limitations, part of a USAID-funded project, Community Services to Vulnerable Groups.
ChildFund achieved or exceeded all its annual targets, including improved capacity in 170 disability-focused organizations, more services for 535 children with disabilities, training for 257 parents and family members, incorporation of inclusive approaches in nine educational settings and other successful advocacy efforts.
Through the course, Oleg has learned how to take photos, which you see below.
His mother suggested a photography exhibit for the youth in his course, and ChildFund Belarus staff members embraced the idea. More than 120 people came to the event, which focused on organizations that help people with disabilities.
“I didn’t even think that the exhibition could change my life so much,” says Oleg. “If I hadn’t taken part in the course, I would never have come to the idea of exhibiting my photos.”
After the ChildFund event, he was invited to photograph a fashion show featuring children with disabilities, and those pictures were displayed in Oleg’s school. All of a sudden, people saw beyond Oleg’s disability: Here was a person with strength, talent and capabilities.
Atiqua Hashem, director of legal services for ChildFund, recently spoke to a group of her colleagues about Vlad, an 18-year-old boy in ChildFund’s Belarus programs, who dreams of becoming a lawyer and has overcome significant disabilities to attend university. Touched by Vlad’s story, she shared the letter of advice she wrote to him.
Vlad, yesterday the president and CEO of ChildFund told us about a boy in Uganda, who once dreamed about being a lawyer just like you. She told us that today that the little boy from Uganda is a lawyer who argues cases before Uganda’s highest court. So hold on to your dream.
I am a lawyer. I work at ChildFund and my colleagues from all over the world have come together to share ideas and challenge each other to figure out what we can all do to better support your dreams and the dreams of children like you.
My colleagues are passionate. They all want to do the best job they can to support you. I have the privilege of working alongside them every day to help figure out how we can implement ideas.
You know, when you are a lawyer, your colleagues rarely come to you with good news. They usually come to you when things are difficult. Here is what I want you to know. I have seen my colleagues sometimes despair; I have seen my colleagues shed tears. They feel deep disappointment when they feel they are not delivering on their promise of supporting you.
Because they feel their responsibility so deeply, Vlad, I want you to know that I expect a few years from now, the ChildFund president will stand up once more and say, “There was once a boy from Belarus who dreamed of becoming a lawyer so he could advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. Recently, he wrote to tell us he has just won an important case before the highest court in Belarus.”
Vlad, I join my colleagues at ChildFund, my fellow lawyers from the bar in Uganda, my legal colleagues from the bar of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and members of the international bar association in saying, we have our eyes on your journey and we are here to cheer you on, and when your dream comes true, we will be there to welcome you when you take your place in the international fellowship of lawyers.
Following Atiqua’s presentation, she met with Irina Mironova, ChildFund’s national director in Belarus, who plans to reach out to Vlad and share Atiqua’s letter.
By ChildFund Belarus staff
Eighteen-year-old Vlad was born with cerebral palsy. His speech is unclear, and he cannot handle a pen or use a computer keyboard. And, yet, Vlad is a brilliant student.
Teachers educated Vlad at his Belarus home. Though the boy couldn’t write, he easily solved math problems in his head. By the age of 15, he had read many literature classics and could easily cite quotes by Dumas or analyze Dostoyevsky’s and Tolstoy’s works.
Vlad dreamed about becoming a lawyer who advocates for the rights of people with disabilities. But he faced a serious roadblock: Belarus’ system of entrance exams to its universities does not consider the special needs of a person with disabilities. The examination must be written, and parents are not allowed to be in a classroom during the exam. Personal assistants to help with writing or reading are typically unavailable.
In a quest to get their son admitted to college, Vlad’s parents petitioned several universities to allow him special assistance to take entrance exams, but they were turned down by most. In 2012, Vera, a vice rector at Baranovichi University, received training in inclusive education, a program conducted by ChildFund through the USAID-funded project Community Services to Vulnerable Groups.
Before the training program, Vera, like many other Belorussian educators, believed that children with communication problems also suffered from cognitive disability, often a misconception. But at the training, Vera was deeply impressed by the examples of academic achievements and talents that American children with disabilities have developed through proper support and teaching.
As a result, Vera decided to change the rigid entrance procedure at her university. She shared her new knowledge with her colleagues and obtained their full support. A special team was arranged to provide Vlad with adequate assistance during the testing process.
At the exams, Vlad gave his answers verbally, and a faculty member wrote it down. This minor adjustment allowed Vlad to pass the tests.
“The results inspired all of my colleagues,” Vera says. “The rector of our university and the members of the state educational board that inspected the exams applauded. Vlad showed brilliant results! He got the highest scores among all the applicants. We are very proud that the boy will become our student. Vlad is very persistent, and there is no doubt he will became a successful advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.”
Because of widespread media coverage, Vlad’s story became known all over Belarus and was praised by the minister of education, who said that 2013 will bring reforms to the entrance examination process at all Belarussian universities.
At Vera’s university, she has continued advocacy efforts by designing a course on inclusive education for students in preschool education. The course was recently approved by the Ministry of Education for university curriculums all over the country.
Read yesterday’s post about a Belorussian girl reunited with her father.
By ChildFund Belarus staff
For 9-year-old Anya, who lives in the small Belarus town of Logoisk, the word “family” has varied definitions. She first lived with her biological mother and then in a foster home, and now she has begun a relationship with her biological father.
Anya’s biological mother could hardly meet her daughter’s basic needs; often, she was left alone and hungry while her mother was out. The girl never knew her biological father, as her mother prohibited him from visiting Anya. She moved to a children’s home after her mother lost custody.
In the children’s home, Anya was very shy. She was lonely, missed her mom and dreamed that one day she would have a real family.
In 2012, ChildFund, which has been operating in Belarus since 1993, began a media campaign with the Logoisk Socio-pedagogic Center to increase the number of foster and adoptive parents. The “Warm the Heart of a Child” campaign was made possible by the USAID-funded Community Services to Vulnerable Groups program. Local media, state agencies and businesses provided support.
The campaign featured pictures and details about real children from Logoisk. Anya’s biological father saw the calendar with Anya’s photo at a local doctor’s office. Eventually, he located Anya and began visiting her in the children’s home. The visits were a big step forward, as it’s a commonly held opinion in Belarus that contact with birth parents can emotionally harm a child in foster care.
However, Anya’s foster mother is an alumna of Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education (PRIDE) training held by ChildFund. Through PRIDE, she understood the crucial role of the biological family in the life of a child and encouraged Anya’s father’s visits. The PRIDE model is revolutionary for Belarus as it is helping break down long-held stereotypes.
“I supposed that it’s important for a child to have contacts with biological family, but I used to hear from other foster parents that it would be traumatizing for a foster child,” Anya’s foster mother said. “PRIDE trainings assured me that family connections are essential to the child, and I was provided with instruments on mediating contacts with the birth family.”
Anya’s father, with the support of her foster mother, applied for family reunification and succeeded. Anya recently rejoined her father at home.
Other foster children from Logoisk have seen positive action by their biological parents, who have undertaken treatment for alcohol abuse and comprehensive rehabilitation to regain their parental rights after learning that their children might be adopted by others.
Similar stories have occurred in Lida, a neighboring community where stories about the campaign have aired on local television stations.
Learn about a teen with disabilities who attends a university in Belarus with the assistance of ChildFund and Community Services to Vulnerable Groups.
Reporting by ChildFund Belarus
Nastya was born with a congenital disability that required her to use a wheelchair starting at an early age. She’s now seven.
Nastya’s parents wanted their daughter to be educated; however, they believed in-home education would probably be the best choice for her. They worried that the social problems she would face at school would be too much for her. As a result, she never attended kindergarten and did not have opportunities to develop communication skills.
This situation is typical for families of children with disabilities in Belarus, where ChildFund began working in 1993. Parents wish to protect their child from discrimination and aggression. Yet, an overprotective upbringing is one of the major barriers to a child’s inclusion in society and participation in community life.
In 2011, ChildFund’s USAID-funded program “Expanding Participation of People With Disabilities” began to reach children like Nastya. Working with another NGO partner, Special World, we started “The First Step to Independence Project.” Nastya and her parents were among 30 families to participate.
The project provides social adaptation tools for children in wheelchairs and resources for their families. Children enjoy the art studio, dance and the Healing of Magic class, while parents work on parenting skills, discuss challenges and share successes with their peers at the parents’ club. Since the project began, children and their parents have experienced physical and psychological improvements and have become more sociable and self-confident.
Successful adults who have disabilities and use wheelchairs act as trainers and leaders, providing inspiration for the children and their families.
When Nastya joined a wheelchair dance class in June 2011, everything was new to her. She was shy and afraid that everyone would laugh at her if she failed. Step by step, with encouraging support from volunteers, peers and her parents, she started to dance.
All of the hard work and achievement was spotlighted during a youth forum in Belarus dedicated to an inclusive society. The event brought together on stage children with disabilities, their typical peers and young volunteers. Nastya appeared with three other children in a special performance, “Dance With Us.”
“Thanks to ChildFund, my daughter opened up and overcame her shyness,” says Nastya’s mom. “I look at the progress Nastya made during the last six months. Now, my daughter is looking forward to going to school. I am absolutely sure that she will find many friends at school.”
Discover more about ChildFund’s work in Belarus.
Reporting by ChildFund Belarus
Over the course of January’s 31 days, we’re making a blog stop in each country where we serve children, thanks to the generous support of our sponsors and donors. So whether you’re helping ChildFund build playgrounds in Afghanistan, provide drought aid in Kenya and Ethiopia or sponsoring a child in the United States, we hope you’ll make new discoveries about our work around the globe.
Kristina, 10, was born in Belarus with a congenital disability that required her to use a wheelchair since early childhood.
Because her wheelchair was not an active model, Kristina needed assistance everywhere she went. Her mom was usually the one pushing Kristina’s chair. But since her mom couldn’t be with her all day, Kristina’s participation in school activities was limited.
More than anything, Kristina wanted to take dance classes. Yet without a wheelchair that she could maneuver, that dream was out of reach. In fact, Belarus government safety regulations prohibited children under 14 from using active wheelchairs. The rule presented serious barriers for Kristina and 5,000 other teenagers using wheelchairs in Belarus. These young people could not fully participate in educational and cultural activities or sports. Being dependent on others to move them from place to place also had a negative impact on the children’s physical development.
In September 2010, ChildFund, which has worked in Belarus since 1993, helped organize a roundtable to address the inclusion of children with disabilities. The issues forum was one of several activities ChildFund was implementing through its USAID-funded Community Services to Vulnerable Groups project, with the aim of expanding participation of people with disabilities.
The unavailability of active wheelchairs for children quickly surfaced as a hot topic at the roundtable. Youth participants pointed out that in addition to the regulatory barrier, the only manufacturer of active wheelchairs in Belarus did not produce a model for children under age 14.
In the months following the roundtable, ChildFund continued to provide youth participants with advocacy training, helping them improve their leadership skills and knowledge of the issues that impact them. Armed with new tools and tactics, youth leaders, working with community members, began to advocate for changes in Belarus regulations that prohibited teenagers from using active wheelchairs. Ultimately, their advocacy work resulted in regulatory relaxation, clearing the way for the manufacturer to start production of active wheelchairs for children under 14.
In May 2011, Kristina got her first active wheelchair: “Now I am happy that I have independence,” she says. “I can meet with my friends and go to dancing classes without my mom. I am going to participate in the [International Paralympic Committee] Wheelchair Dance Sport competition next year. There are no more barriers to my sports career and my life!”
Discover more about ChildFund’s programs in Belarus.
In Belarus, thousands of children are orphaned or lack parental care. Since 1993, ChildFund International has worked in that country to combat this problem through the Supporting Orphans and Vulnerable Children program.
The program operates in five communities and strives to reduce the number of institutionalized children by finding ways to return them to their families or live in alternative care structures. Another one of this program’s goals is to strengthen protective services and activities for these children so they feel secure.
Children are not the only ones who need our help. Parents also need guidance on proper childcare to create a healthy environment in which their children can grow up. By teaching parents clear, sound guidelines for parenting as well as nonviolent conflict resolution, we help them develop a foundation of discipline and respect within their families. Parents are also able to take classes on reproductive health and child abuse prevention.
ChildFund recognizes that children are critical to social change in Belarus. We support public schools that use programs such as life skills education, social interactive theater and youth volunteer activities to develop children’s ability to create social change.
We also help children build their social and leadership skills by empowering them to design and implement their own programs to help other children. These peer-to-peer programs are used in schools, hospitals, prisons and for children with disabilities.
To learn more about our work in Belarus, click here.
More on Belarus
Population: 9.6 million
ChildFund beneficiaries: More than 110,000 children and families
Did You Know?: Through 2005, about a fifth of Belarusian land continues to be affected by radiation fallout from neighboring Ukraine’s 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Next in our “31 in 31” series: We take a photo tour of Bolivia.