During the previous months, Youth Center „Petar Kočić“ from Gradiška has organized creative and educational workshops for children with developmental difficulties and their friends with typical development. The time these little ones spend together, accompanied by professional staff, contributes significantly to their development and social inclusion.
During the entire summer, the sight of playful children creating various handicrafts was often seen on the streets of Gradiška. The story behind their fanciful game carries an important message recognized by the citizens of this place.
„We have never had something like this in our city“, the psychologist Nevena Gvozdenac told us, while we talked to her surrounded by the creative children in the center of Gradiška. Their laughter, she says, overpowers all the differences between them.
For the past five years, Gvozdenac has been dedicated to working with children with developmental difficulties. Realizing that formal education doesn’t offer them the opportunity for creative development, she wished to provide additional free activities which will support their social integration. Thus, she designed workshops where children with special needs would be joined by children with typical development, inducing the feeling of acceptance in the former and of empathy in the latter.
Her idea was recognized by the Youth Center „Petar Kočić“, which developed the project named „Creative Buddies“. Žana Kovačević, project coordinator and President of the Youth Center, said that as a mother of a girl with developmental difficulties, she saw Nevena’s idea as an opportunity for a different approach to these children in their joining with children of healthy development.
„This is not a closed type of workshop for children with developmental difficulties. Nevena has helped in bringing them closer together, and we can see that these joint workshops don’t pose a great problem for them, which is very important to us as parents„ Kovačević said.
The project „Creative Buddies“ has been implemented in Gradička since May 2022. within the ReLOaD2 project (Regional Programme on Local Democracy in the Western Balkans) financed by the European Union, and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Youth Center „Petar Kočić“ organized the first youth workshops in the beginning of June 2022. Since then, they have been taking place once a week. The workshops will last until October this year.
„All workshops are based on teamwork, and we try to randomly include children as much as possible. Our focus is mostly on creative activities which allow the children to use their imagination and create various handicrafts from natural materials„ Gvozdenac said.
Project Assistant Tamara Vučić, who supervises the children during the workshops, says that, through creative play, the children accept each other quickly. Until now, almost 20 workshops with 50 children in attendance took place. The plan is to include even more, especially children from rural areas, as there is no opportunity for such creative activities in these areas.
„My daughter Tamara never misses a single workshop and always asks when the next one will be. Spending time with other children helps her socialization. I take her to every workshop and I hope we will have more similar activities, said Miroslava Spasojević, the mother of a girl with developmental difficulties.
Željko Babić, who takes his son with developmental difficulties to the workshop, says that the children’s development is visible. In his opinion, this is related to the fact that the workshops are organized in such a way that the children feel accepted and free to express their creativity.
Parents of children with developmental difficulties believe that their children don’t have the opportunity for creative development within formal education. Unfortunately, there are no customized school activities or textbooks provided for them. Žana Kovačević from the Youth Center „Petar Kočić“ says that parents usually come up with ideas for additional education and creative activities by themseves or with the support of therapists.
„These children need informal education, such as these workshops, most of all. Many of them are not able to adopt the skills taught in primary school. They cannot write, they cannot speak correctly, but it is important that they are being taught. We shouldn’t give up. Basically, the most important thing for them is to spend time with other children and to be able to create together.“ Kovačević noted.
Psychologist Gvozden said the most important thing is that the positive effects of the workshops are visible.
„We see children who were closed starting to open up, socialize, feel accepted and loved, which instantly impacts their self-confidence positively. We also notice parents are encouraging their children to support each other more, which makes them feel that they have friends. “ says Gvozden.
The employers of the Youth Center „Petar Kočić“ say that they are greately supported by the local government which recognizes their efforts in improving the position of young people in society. Besides the city of Gradiška, they are supported by the Center for Social Work, the Medical Center and pre-school institutions.
„This city has recognized the importance of supporting persons with developmental difficulties and their families, who mustn’t be isolated in their homes, but included and loved. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t provide adequate support for children with developmental difficulties, but thanks to projects such as these, we can continuously work with them. Our goal for these children is to develop their sensibility and capacity for empathy and tolerance, and to get them acquainted with the difficulties and challenges their friends face“, Gvozden concluded.
By organizing workshops within the ”Creative Buddies” project, the Youth Center „Petar Kočić“ has created a new model of promoting the culture of Gradiška. The employees of the Youth Center explain that the handicrafts made by children during the workshops will be used to create a map of the city and of the village, which will be displayed in the Cultural Center of Gradiška. The exhibition will take place during this winter after the finalization of project activities and it will showcase the creativity of the children with developmental difficulties.