News Release

Martina's Hope

On a bright, clear September morning in 2021, Martina* woke up with hope, for once, that school might be a way forward, not one more obstacle. Last year was discouraging. Her parents worked hard all day long in the rubbish dumps around Belgrade, looking for salvage. Martina’s Serbian was not very good, her clothes were ill-fitting, worn and carried the smells of her neighbourhood. So, she was reminded often by the other students and by her own senses, that she didn’t fit in. Her parents did not know enough about how to fill out the forms or help with homework. And, sometimes, her empty stomach distracted her reading.

One of the CYI drop-in facilities2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

But, she thought, this year might be different. Volunteers from the Center for Youth Integration (“CYI”) helped her fill out the forms. CYI has created two drop-in gathering places in Belgrade, Serbia for Roma schoolchildren who participate with permission from their parents. Their gathering place had a new dress for the first day, and a place to wash. They helped her after school with homework; they even let her choose a new backpack to keep the school papers straight! Perhaps there is a chance, she thought as she walked into the class with her head held high.

This autumn 180 Roma children enrolled in school hoping to avoid street life, assisted by 30 University of Belgrade student volunteers, the Center for Youth Integration (“CYI”) and Latter-day Saint Charities (“LDSC”). LDSC is the humanitarian arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its purpose is to relieve suffering, foster self-reliance and provide opportunities for service. CYI Project Coordinator Lazar Milosevic says the parents “lack capacities for … paperwork that is necessary for enrollment, [because] they are working through the day, mainly collecting garbage. So, they lack time, their children do not have shoes, clothes, or they have bad hygiene.”

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Volunteers teaching Roma children on-on-one2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

“LDSC was able to partner with CYI to help them provide a place for Roma children," explains Raelene Bills, a full-time volunteer with the Church, “LDSC helps fund the programme for children from less fortunate families.” The children come from 27 informal Roma settlements around Belgrade and receive meals, a shower, new clothes and help with homework. “Thanks to the activities of [CYI], the Roma community gets children who are ready to perform school obligations regularly and successfully,” comments Svetlana Ilić, pedagogical assistance at Belgrade’s Jovan Cvijić elementary school. "These children have a safe path to regular education and there is no danger of them dropping out of the regular education system.”

“Children that are living in extreme poverty, most of them Roma, have issues in socialization which comes from living conditions and mostly not knowing the Serbian language. Taking children on extracurricular activities and mingling them with other children is building their self-esteem and provides them with confidence. We are very happy and proud of our work,” CYI Project Coordinator Lazar Milosevic says “…but there are many barriers and issues with the public services for these people. We are in constant battle” with regulations that present difficult or unnecessary challenges for these families. “Providing them with the support in the first few years ... also prevent[s] … drop out in later years.”

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Latter Day Saints Charities plaque on the wall of their café2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

“I consider our workshops a chance to draw attention to kids who tend to be left behind in the classrooms,” adds Dijana Injac, a Master’s degree student of Serbian language and literature, one of three winners of the National Prize for Volunteering and a CYI volunteer. “Many of them struggle with major difficulties in childhood, so they are forced to grow up quickly.” Milosevic adds, “These children find love, care, and friendships with us.”

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Two young Roma girls choose a new outfit with shoes for school at a gathering centre.2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

“As I have become an educator in the Center for Youth Integration, my work involves students of the fifth grade, who are older, and therefore faced with bigger challenges when it comes to education,” Dijana continues. “And we help them adjust to the new teachers and subjects. At the end of the workshops, we always find time for some refreshments ..., funny games and enjoyable conversations.” “CYI has a café where they have given older Roma jobs,” Ralene Bills adds. “LDSC also provides funding for school and hygiene supplies, workshop materials, transportation, and outdoor activities.”

*Name has been changed, to reflect the daily reality of many of these students, whose identities are protected.

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