Now, thanks to an innovative program run by Staze, these children are getting their first real opportunity to make friends and have fun away from their parents. Twenty four young volunteers, recruited mostly from the local colleges, have been matched to a young autistic child or teenager in a so-called "Buddy" system. Real friendships between volunteers and their young charges are being forged.
Half of the volunteers work with the younger children on the premises of the daycare center, helping them to play games, undergo therapy, or simply to express themselves through art and music. The volunteers are by nature kind and gentle with the children, and have been trained under the USAID/ORT program to deal effectively with behavioral problems. On the day we visited, one of the volunteers was playing ball with a young autistic boy in order to improve his physical coordination skills. In another room, a rather intense board game was taking place - the volunteers refusing to let their young charges to cheat even just a little bit... In all, the sunny, open space of the center provides a safe place for young volunteers and autistic children to connect in a genuine and open way.
The other half of the volunteers works with a group of older children and teens, aged between twelve and eighteen, accompanying them to concerts, the shopping mall, the bowling alley... all the usual haunts of young teenagers, in fact. But these are no ordinary teenagers - they all have varying degrees of autism, and for most of them, this is the first chance they've had to experience a social life with people close to their own age, and who are not part of their own family. This has proved to be of huge benefit to the young people involved in terms of improved socialization and self-esteem.
To date, both the autistic children and young teens have enjoyed several day-long and overnight excursions with their volunteer buddies and the center's staff. One day, they helped a local conservation NGO to plant ten trees in Zlatica Park. Another day, they all went up to the ski slopes in Vujcic, and enjoyed a day tobogganing in the snow.
Although the project is still in its pilot phase, the daycare center staff has already noticed that the volunteers and their young charges are enjoying each other's company so much that they are spending far more time together than originally planned. The volunteers come to the center between 11 am and 1 pm every day, each volunteer committing eight hours of his or her time per month; however, in reality, the volunteers are actually working with the kids for an average of thirteen hours a month each. The reason for this is that the children are enjoying their time with the volunteers so much that they ask them to spend a little more time with them, and the volunteers are happy to oblige them.
The volunteers and the autistic children and teens have developed a deep bond and friendship that goes beyond the formal boundaries of the Buddy system. The parents have told me in their meetings with us that they are utterly astonished at the progress in socialization and communication skills of their children, says Anka Djurisić, the Director of the Staze daycare center and parents association. And let's not forget, this also carries huge benefits for the young volunteers participating in the program, she adds.
Specifically, not only do the volunteers gain friendship and self-worth through their work with young disabled people, but they also gain practical experience that will stand to them in their chosen lines of work in the field of social sciences and teaching. It is a program that benefits all involved - the children, the volunteers, the parents, and the dedicated staff at the NGO Staze daycare center.
In an effort to ensure that this worthy program continues beyond the end of the USAID-funded ORT Persons with Disabilities Initiative (PWDI), the NGO Staze is investigating the possibility of signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Montenegro, so that each year the social sciences faculties that belong to the university select and send a number of students to work as volunteers at the Staze center for autistic children. As Anka points out, Not only will this ensure that our program continues to be fully staffed with volunteers year in year out, but it will also help the young students to build a solid CV, which can only help them in their chosen career paths given that apprenticeships and practical job experience is so rare in the Montenegrin education system.