BELGRADE, Serbia (Aug. 13, 2015) — As the father of an autistic adult son, Jovica Vukmirovic understands how to care for children with disabilities.
Employed by the non-governmental organization, Cherish Our Children International, Vukmirovic has been working with disabled youth for more than seven years in Sopot, a municipality of Belgrade. He and his wife visit those in need of assistance at home because there is no day care or school to accommodate them here.
“There are 100 disabled kids and no building, where we can work with them professionally,” Vukmirovic said.
Sopot is the only Belgrade municipality lacking a facility to serve the needs of the disabled, so Vukmirovic and his director approached the U.S. Embassy about providing a day care center through U.S. European Command’s, or EUCOM’s, humanitarian-assistance program.
After years of planning, Vukmirovic – together with U.S. Ambassador Michael Kirby, Sopot officials, representatives from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, Europe District; the contractor, Fuduric GmbH; and the community – broke ground on a 400-square-meter disabled daycare center, funded by EUCOM, July 16.
This project is being constructed in conjunction with a second disabled day care facility in the south-eastern town of Pirot. A similar ground-breaking ceremony was held there the following day. The centers are expected to be complete in early 2016.
These projects are unique because they address a niche population that has not previously been addressed, said Wale Adelakun, a USACE Europe District special projects engineer.
“In both areas, the projects are creating capacity to take care of a portion of the population,” he said.
The facilities will accommodate care and job training for mild and severely mentally-disabled, visually-impaired, blind and deaf children and adolescents. The long-term goal is to train these kids to be independent and provide for themselves, Vukmirovic said.
“To see kids with a place to go is important to me,” he said. “I want to change people’s thoughts about how to care for disabled children here.”
The municipalities and local communities are invested in the projects – they provide land for the buildings and are responsible for maintaining the facilities upon completion. Adelakun says the success of humanitarian-assistance projects depends on the ability to develop close, trusting relationships with stakeholders, including the local communities.
“We can’t get the job done unless we build on relationships with various municipalities and NGOs, end-users, the embassy, EUCOM and the contractor,” he said. “Oftentimes the best way to build relationships is through face time; the more time I can spend at the projects, speaking with the involved parties, the better the project will turn out.”
In Serbia, EUCOM humanitarian-assistance projects help the government provide essential services that the budget does not afford them, said Lt. Col. Corey Shea, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade’s Office of Defense Cooperation chief.
“These day care centers are something they can maintain; they make a lasting impact,” he said. “Buildings are different from exercises, because after an exercise concludes, there’s nothing left behind that says it happened. With a building, something that is constructed, it will last for decades and always be there. Every child that goes to these centers will see a sign that says they were built by the U.S. military.”
In Pirot, a municipality with nearly 300 registered disabled children under the age of 18, those with mental disabilities currently remain at home because there are no adequate care institutions, government officials said.
Once the new center is constructed, it will be used to full capacity, said Natasha Stasha Stankovic, representing a local NGO serving the blind and visually impaired.
“It will be nice for our activities,” she said. “It makes us very happy.”
During the Pirot groundbreaking ceremony, July 17, disabled students, the real recipients of the facility, were present for the event. Meeting them brought the project to life, Adelakum said.
“As a project engineer, it’s very easy to get lost in the weeds and focus on the drawings, designs, specifications and the progress of constructing the facility without realizing the impact that the facility will have,” he said. “Executing this contract gives me the unique perspective to work with the technical and human elements of the project.”
The relationship between Serbia and the United States continues to strengthen through the execution of these projects, Shea said.
“A lot of these communities haven’t had much contact with Americans; they value that we are providing this assistance,” he said.
Today, Serbia continues to improve social services and care for disabled children. The government has battled many challenges, including access to and quality of care for this demographic.
One challenge has been the concentration of special-needs schools and centers in and around large cities, according to a 2008 UNESCO study. The projects in Pirot and Sopot, serving rural municipalities with no existing facilities, aim to address this challenge.
The goal is for these children to provide financially for themselves, contribute to the community and fill jobs they can do well, Vukmirovic said.
“We want them to become equal members of society; it’s not something big, they are human beings,” he said.