Service-Learning in Bosnia and Herzegovina
“Home for children and youth without parental care” in Banja Luka, Bosnia & Herzegovina.
As an assistant professor of developmental psychology, I contacted them to volunteer myself, in order to observe the development of the youngest group of children living in the Home, and I got a positive answer. A few months after I started my observations, I realized that their chronic staff shortage, which is the main source of problems for these children, could be compensated by my students’ engagement. At the same time, I realized that every student engaged there could learn more about child development than I could offer from any of my lectures alone.
The service we are providing is a 1 on 1 relationship with an adult for each child, because that is the most important thing these children are deprived of. We structured our collaboration as a “1 student for each child” intervention whereby each child has someone who cares and comes only for that individual child at least 1 and up to 3 times per week, until the conditions are met for the child to leave the Home.
All the students in this project are psychology students, and our academic goals are in the realm of developmental psychology. However, there is only one psychologist employed at the entire institution, and although being of immense help, she also works as an administrator, highly overburdened with daily administrative duties.
After 3 months of our work, we distributed a semi structured questionnaire to the staff member’s in order to evaluate the students’ engagement, the children’s reactions and changes in behaviour and the overall quality of the interaction between the students and the children. They also had to write their own suggestions on how to change or improve our intervention. Finally, we organized a meeting where staff members were informed about the goals and the content of our intervention and where they could ask questions and give suggestions in a small group setting. The organization is very much involved to evaluate the service objectives.
The people taking active part are 5 staff members, 20 students, and 16 children, but this number is growing with new generations of students and, unfortunately, with new children being admitted to the Home.
Primarily, our final beneficiaries are children aged 0 to 8 living in the Children’s Home. Each student has formed a significant relationship with one child, and visits this child at least 1 and up to 3 times per week. They spend 1 to 2 hours playing, reading, cuddling, talking to each other, drawing etc., and this has turned out to be the first significant relationship most of them have ever formed with a child. They are surprised by the strength of their emotions towards the children and it affects them in very positive ways as persons. The children, on the other hand, for the first time have someone who regularly comes to visit them, and just them, for who they are. This is an invaluable experience of self-worth and emotional connection with an adult which opens the space for development of communicational and cognitive skills previously locked in the absence of a one-to-one interaction with an adult.
Every staff member works with a minimum of 7 children at the same time. Every moment of help is valuable to them. When students come, the staff members can take a short break or finish accumulated administrative duties. They also report that watching the children looking forward to “their” own students have made their job more enjoyable.
Their perception has definitely changed, because we involved them in the planning, implementation and evaluation of the whole process, we ask their opinion for every change we introduce, we value their work and efforts. In addition, we offer them a structured program instead of just a “we’re here to help – you tell us what to do” attitude, which can make their job easier (a volunteer who knows what, when and how to do things) and not harder (taking care of yet another volunteer).
By Slavica Tutnjević
Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology.
University of Banja Luka.