At IKEA, we live and work by our set of values. During the application process to participate in the IWitness program, we were asked which value we would most embody during our visit; this was a difficult choice. Now having a chance to visit Kosovo and meet the Save the Children in Kosova/o team, the students, educators, NGO partners, and families, it is apparent why this was such a challenge—these groups all embody our values as well.
Humbleness and willpower
The determination, commitment and willpower of everyone we met during our visit to Kosovo were absolutely inspiring. For such a young nation with lingering political conflicts and economic struggles (almost 55% youth unemployment and 50% of the nation age 18 or younger), the challenge of bringing inclusive education to all children regardless of gender, ethnicity, ability or economic status is no easy task.
Yet the greatest strength and willpower I witnessed was not in the schools or the program offices but in the home of the Egyptian family we were so fortunate to meet. To meet a mother who never received any formal schooling herself but still asks to check her children’s homework was touching. To speak to a father with only an 8th grade education who manages to support a family of seven on 75 euros a month, who encourages his children to attain an education to get a better life and leaves them wanting nothing more than another notebook to practice writing like their older siblings, leaves me speechless. How humbling to consider my sole contribution to this mission has been to dress in silly costumes for eight weeks out of the year in order to encourage sales and donations while they face the struggles of this reality every day.
Leadership by example
It’s sometimes easy to say one thing and do another, but Save the Children and all of its partners truly live the example they want others to follow. From the Code of Conduct for Children’s Rights to actively interacting with all students regardless of gender, ethnicity, ability, etc., all involved partners were truly leading others with their actions.
When speaking to the representative from the Handikos Community Based Rehabilitation Center in Mitrovica North, we had asked how the center had been received by the neighborhood. As expected, there had been some resistance to its inclusion. Despite this negative perception by others around, the representative spoke about how she had brought her own children to the center to demonstrate that it was a good space and that all were welcome.
Daring to be different
Prior to the intervention of Save the Children, parents often kept their children with disabilities hidden at home, or these students were taught in separate schools, and minority children did not attend pre-school (Kosovo still has the lowest rate of 0-5 pre-school attendance in Europe at 3%). Save the Children has challenged these previous methods and persevered to introduce the newer inclusion model.
At most of the schools, I asked the educators how long they had been teaching. Many had been in the classroom for well over a decade and long before the inclusive model had been implemented. Yet when I asked how they liked the inclusion model, you could immediately see their faces brighten as they spoke about how this change had benefitted not only the children with disabilities and minority students but also the other students who were being exposed to a more diverse population and themselves.
Togetherness and enthusiasm
Save the Children, with the funding assistance from the IKEA Foundation generated from the Soft Toys for Education campaign, has approached the challenge of providing an inclusive education for all children with the utmost humility and a relentless passion to implement sustainable change and improvements. However, they have not tried this alone. A truly holistic approach has been used in which all stakeholders are involved.
In every municipality where they have implemented programs, they have done so only with the support and participation of all stakeholders. They have recognized that the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) already established in the communities are their best advocates and supporters who can open doors otherwise left closed.
They understand that the educators and school directors have great knowledge already and are key team members to implement their programs. Children are given a voice for their rights and needs, and families are sought out to get their input and support. Despite the plethora of daunting challenges before all of these parties, a never-ending desire to achieve this inclusive education via a holistic approach is always shared. Everyone is determined to create this better future for the children and empower all stakeholders to do what is necessary to achieve it.
Over the past ten years, the Soft Toy campaign has raised 27.5 million euros, shared amongst 18 countries, and directly affecting the lives of 600,000 children.
Save the Children in Kosova/o has used its funding for direct interventions, training and development for educators, children, and parents, and working to advocate for policy and legislation change. The effective use of this funding was apparent in the competence of educators who had benefitted from this training, the plethora of didactic materials available for the children, and the facilities in which the students were learning inclusively.
Nowhere was it more apparent that those involved in this mission were more capable of achieving great results with small means than the Handikos center in Gjakova. As we stood outside the modest facility comprised mostly of only two small rooms, one for physical assistance and one for cognitive assistance, the director told us of their struggles, perseverance, and success. We were split into groups because we could hardly all fit in one room at the same time. Inside, I was wowed by what I saw.
We met one child who had made progress to crawl and stand unassisted briefly, which he could not do before. We spoke to his mother, who had been given exercises and activities to do with him herself at home that she was able to use even when they had moved away shortly so that he did not regress. We met one teenager who had received services herself at the center and was now serving as a teen leader and advocate in another area. All of this and more was achieved with very meager means.
Constant desire for renewal
Even when programs are successful, there is always more to be done. One successful school must spread to a municipality and then to the nation. While it is important that the little successes be celebrated, there is always more to be done.
At Save the Children, they believe this as well. The statistics we were presented showed great growth over the past few years with more to be done. With the goal of establishing sustainable programs, the staff spoke about how if a program is ineffective, new solutions are explored until success can be achieved. Even where progress was being made, ideas were still being shared as to how it could still be done in a better way.
I was truly impressed by how, even though training had been created to support the educators is yielding positive results, this was not enough. Save the Children thought there has to be an even better way and is now partnering with universities to create a Master’s program in Inclusive Education to generate a greater focus and implement a more sustainable change.
Accept and delegate responsibility
While Save the Children has set out on this mission to inspire and achieve lasting impact for the world’s most vulnerable children, they realize they cannot do this alone. In every region they have set forth to implement programs, they have enlisted the assistance of others, including educators, politicians, NGOs, families and even the children. Save the Children has accepted the responsibility of educating children in their rights, yet delegated the responsibility of being advocates for themselves and their peers to these students. Children are given the responsibility of designing their school by choosing wall colors and chair type. They have access to complaint boxes where they voice their concerns and suggestions for their school. They represent their peers and schools in municipal Children’s Assemblies.
I cannot recall a time in which I’ve been more inspired than when meeting the Gjakova Children’s Assembly. Every teen (age 12-14) was very polite, poised and mature. They like the same things other teenagers do: music, robotics, and soccer. In addition, they serve as the voice of their school in spite of and because of the apathy of their peers. They actively chose to create a video to educate teens about the benefits and harms of social media. They created brochures to educate children of their rights. Even as we sat with them, they were planning projects to better serve their communities and schools.
During our visit, we saw the results of many great programs and initiatives undertaken by Save the Children and their partners. What stood out most were the little things that are done every day to really make a difference. A poster on a wall to teach the alphabet. A box in the hallway to give children their voice. A high five to congratulate a child on solving a puzzle. While the greater changes are important too, these small, daily actions are what the children perceive the most that will stick with them.
Striving to meet reality
The challenge for Kosovo is real; children with disabilities make up nearly 1% of their entire population (14,500 children) and only 10% of those children have access to education in any form. Clearly Save the Children cannot solve this problem immediately or alone, but they have set up a system to enable to a realistic, sustainable change.
When Save the Children begins a program, they start by forming relationships with the local educators, NGOs, and regional governments. When funding and resources are available, they introduce their programs holistically. When these programs are successful, they use these partners to ensure the programs can be supported without their assistance and then replicated in other areas.
One of the best examples we saw of this was with the inclusion educators. When the program was first implemented, Save the Children funded the salary of these teachers. However, there had been an agreement and understanding that after the initial three years it would be the responsibility of the municipality to work these salaries into their regular budgets. This year and next, this transition is being made for the 56 inclusion teachers who have been integrated into the schools. While this will not solve the entire problem, these sustainable steps are making this change a reality.
The importance of constantly being “on the way”
Even though Kosovo may be a young country with many steps ahead, I hope and believe a better everyday life and a glorious future stands before them. Children of Kosovo are truly benefitting from the programs that have been implemented by Save the Children with the support of the IKEA Foundation. While there is much still to be done, the actions of all those involved truly reflect our IKEA values and make me so proud to be a part of an organization that supports such meaningful and impactful work.