Cases 13:33 01 Aug 2023

Two hours of carefree childhood: the children's support project helps young Ukrainians during the war

For more than a year, the SpivDiia for Children project has been operating spaces for children and their parents to receive psychological support, find new hobbies and friends, learn, and develop in 22 Ukrainian cities. Rubryka spoke with the head of the project to find out how it works and how over 80,000 children have already been helped in a year of work.

What is the problem?

During war, children are the most unprotected and vulnerable population category. Russia takes away little Ukrainians' homes, sense of security, and loved ones — forcing them to sleep not in their beds, but hiding in shelters during night attacks and bombardments. Children, too, face the realities of war — challenges that even adults are hardly ready for, in terms of both physical and mental safety. A child cannot cope with all this without the help of adults in their life.

What is the solution?

To preserve and restore children's mental health, friendly spaces were created throughout Ukraine by the SpivDiia for Children project. Here, through an informal education program, children can receive quality psycho-emotional support they need, meet new friends, learn about the world they live in, and share their experiences. Rubryka explains how the project works and what its features are.

How does it work?

"Let's act for the sake of the future"

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Five-year-old Polinka and her mother, Tetyana, haven't been home to their native Mariupol for 344 days. They had to flee from the war to Chernivtsi, in southwest Ukraine, where they hardly knew anyone. They learned about the project SpivDiia for Children by chance — from a friend from Vinnytsia. Tetyana found this space in Chernivtsi, and, according to her, it was the right choice.

"Polinka rushes to classes at the space with great pleasure! We tried other places – kindergarten, children's groups… but here is the best. I am glad my daughter communicates and engages in creative, active, and educational activities. The friendly atmosphere and support provided to my child make me happy," Tetyana shares with Rubryka. According to her mother, Polina has become calmer, makes contact more quickly, and has opeed up to communication.

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SpivDiia for Children has been operating in 22 cities of Ukraine.

SpivDiia for the Sake of Children is currently being implemented in 22 cities and towns in Ukraine, and it all started a little over a year ago. At the end of February 2022, the charitable fund was created and actively began developing several ways to help Ukrainians. Back then, the volunteer project began to unite people who like to work with children and know how to do it professionally. The teams gave the children activities to divert attention from the bad news and relieve the parents who were with the children 24/7.

As Olha Syrotyuk, head of the project, said volunteer teams in ten cities of Ukraine worked until May 2022. Then, the initiative started to receive support from UNICEF and the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine, and began to expand throughout Ukraine.

The national team of the project is led by seven caring women who created an effective system from scratch that helps children return to a normal childhood. In each of the cities where they work, there are regional teams consisting of a coordinator and mentors who are trained as educators, psychologists, or social workers.

Turning the black and white present into a bright and colorful one

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The course program is aimed at restoring the child's mental health. 

"More than a third of children in Ukraine have felt the consequences of the war, so we are not limited to IDP children," says Syrotyuk. "Our spaces are also open to local children. It is essential to create environments for them to come together. Unfortunately, school does not fully provide this. We currently invite children aged 5 to 12 to classes, but we plan to do something similar for teenagers too."

The basis of the project is a course of psycho-emotional support for children — these are eight to ten classes per month aimed at restoring the child's mental health. The project also offers a unique system of classes with STEAM elements — that is, covering Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics.

Children who come to classes first get to know each other, share their moods and learn about the class subject. Then they have some motor activities, a creative workshop or art therapy on a given topic, and classes with STEAM elements or scientific experiments. At the end of each class, there is always a reflection period, where children share what they liked or didn't like, and talk about their state and emotions. As practice shows, with each subsequent lesson, children become more open and lovingly tell their parents and the team about what is happening to them and how they feel.

There are more than 15 unique class topics, all of which are thought out in detail so that children are interested in them. Mental rehabilitation here occurs imperceptibly for the child — through play, engaging activities, and communication with peers. Open classes and events are available for those who cannot attend regularly. The project also carries out mine safety classes, where, according to UNICEF, children learn not to touch unfamiliar objects and how to react to danger — for example, to dial emergency services.

According to Syrotyuk, children perceive mentors as friends.

Mentors very clearly define the boundary of friendship and still have authority over children. "It is important not to confuse them with entertainers," emphasizes the project manager. For the children, they are kind of mentors with whom the children can share their personal life and spend time comfortably and happily. Children return to a normal childhood through non-formal education: playing, doing motor activity, creativity and STEAM-learning, communication with peers, and through the support of mentors.

Does it really work?

Lviv: there are no 'other people's children'

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The space creates a friendly atmosphere, where children can relax emotionally, feel comfortable in a circle of friends, and put their into doing something useful. 

"Lviv is often the first places where people arrive when moving from more dangerous regions, and it is important for us that this first feeling of safety accompanies people as much as possible," shares Ulyana Kovalyshyn, the coordinator of the SpivDiia for the Sake of Children team in Lviv. "We create a friendly atmosphere in our space, where children can relax emotionally, feel the friendly atmosphere, and do something useful. This, in turn, is a help for parents, who understand that their child will be looked after, helped with difficulties, and be listened to when the child wants to share."

The Lviv program includes classes with permanent groups and various open events. For example, since beginning  in August 2022, dozens of excursions have been held here to ecological and naturalistic centers, an IT company, and TV and radio studios.

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Children went on an excursion organized by SpivDiia in Lviv

"The cooking workshops held by Ukrainian chef Ievgen Klopotenko's team, figure skating workshops, ceramics painting, and robotics classes were inspiring. The visit of dog trainers who came with their pets and explained how to behave with dogs and how to train them was very funny," Kovalyshyn told Rubryka. 

The space also devotes time to the arts — the children attend performances and also create their own. "Acting is an event after which there are always incredible emotions. Children often find themselves in this format, and we continue to work and look for something new every time," says Kovalyshyn.

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The cooking master class with Ukrainian chef Ievgen Klopotenko was a hit.

"There are no 'other people's children' — they are all ours! This phrase is as relevant as ever, and of utmost importance. Each of us is currently going through trials. However, our most important task is to support, inspire and help children go through this experience, to overcome the challenges of war," adds Sofia Bobyk, mentor of the space in Lviv.

Lutsk: it is easy for us to understand children's emotions

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Space SouvDiia for the Sake of Children was also opened in Lutsk

Psychologist Iryna Rozhanska, coordinator of the project in Lutsk, comes from the city of Sievierodonetsk in the east of Ukraine, here she worked for 15 years in an after-school education institution. In March 2022, the woman evacuated with her family to Lutsk.

"Like everyone else, it was hard morally. We lost our whole life, our favorite jobs. During the first weeks, we gradually recovered. Then came the understanding that something had to be done, because I didn't have the strength to just sit and watch the news constantly," says Rozhanska.

The resettler saw an announcement that they were looking for educators to organize classes for children aged five to 12. Without thinking, she submitted her resume, and in July, a friendly space for children in Lutsk gave her a call.

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"In Lutsk, an incredibly cool team of girls who adore their work, who are filled with love and care for children, has been selected," Rozhanska told Rubryka. "Most importantly, everyone here understands that children need support and consolation. Three of the five employees are IDPs from Sievierodonetsk, Mariupol, and Lyman. It is very easy for us to understand the emotions of children forced to be far from their homes. They are very happy when they find out we are from the same regions."

The space actively integrates STEAM education into the classes. With the help of interesting experiments, the team demonstrates to children that science is not always difficult, but can be interesting, spectacular, and understandable.

Uman: the motto of the team is 'children should have a childhood'

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The Dzhereltse volunteer center in the city of Uman became part of the SpivDiia project in November 2022. Now the team of the space in Uman consists of Nataliia Vdovychenko, the coordinator; and three mentors: Oksana Podobedova, an experienced teacher, Yuliya Alekseeva, a psychologist, and Valentina Kovalska,  a teacher and choreographer. The entire team's efforts are focused not only on what mentors can give to children, but also on opportunities for children's self-actualization.

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SpivDiia classes in Uman include mine safety lessons and other relevant activities.

The team's activities include excursions to the National Arboretum Sofiivka, the state historical and architectural reserve Stara Uman, the manor Lyalkova Khata, and the Museum of Trypil Culture. At the psycho-emotional support course, children get to know Ukraine's culture, study Petrykiv painting, and study the symbols of Ukrainian embroidery.

Vdovychenko remembers that she had to work in different conditions: without light except from lanterns in underground shelters during air raids. The children made their own crafts, learned about mine safety, and all together sang the "Red Viburnum" song and the national anthem of Ukraine. "So that it wasn't so scary," adds the project coordinator.

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Marynka, one of the participants of the project SpivDiia in Uman, suffers from arthrogryposis, which prevents her from walking on her own — but this does not prevent her from participating creatively in her classes.

This is 10-year-old Marynka, an incredibly strong creative girl. She is one of the participants in the project in Uman. She spent most of her life in medical institutions and surgeries, and doctors and nurses became her friends.

During the full-scale war, the girl's circle of communication narrowed to a minimum. A diagnosis of arthrogryposis could break a child's psyche – but not Marynka. "She is a real fighter! We remember the mother's words at the first meeting: 'We were very worried whether our special girl would be taken to the class?' And how can we not? She is friendly, sincere, open to communication, and always with a smile on her face," Vdovychenko shared with Rubryka. Marynka has been attending the classes of the permanent group of 10 to 12-year-olds for two months. She wants to participate in every activity: drawing, singing, gluing, moving, and dancing. She proudly came out on stage to receive a certificate for participating in the project, though in her mother's arms, due to her condition. 

Unfortunately, for now, Marynka's dream of walking on her own remains a dream — such operations are not currently being performed in Ukraine. However, the psycho-emotional support and help the girl receives in the project are precious to the family. 

Even more useful solutions!

Support not only children but also parents

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In some cities, SpivDiia organizes support groups for parents. 

The space uses art therapy and meditation practices to improve the emotional state of children and adults. Sometimes adults take such classes together with children.

"It happens that we invite parents to children's classes. It is also important — for example, for a mother and daughter — to have time and space for rapprochement and support," says Syrotyuk.

Active work with parents continues on social networks. The head of the project says it is essential to inform parents about the methods of interaction with children, their upbringing, and support during the war. Parents often ask questions about how to deal with anxiety — their own and the child's, how to limit the child's phone time, and what to do during the child's emotional outbursts, which have intensified against the background of the war. The answers can be found on the Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram project pages.

The project's statistics are impressive — during its existence, 84,730 children throughout Ukraine have received psycho-emotional support. According to the parents' reviews, children feel comfortable and happy in the spaces of SpivDiia. They spend time with peers, study, learn many new things, discover talents, dance, have fun, and communicate.

"Thank you, we found friends here," "We study online and are very happy that there is a place where the child communicates with peers," "Can we bring some friends from school?" and "What happens here is something that we all miss so much — children immerse themselves in a happy, carefree childhood for two hours, and parents have the opportunity to rejoice in such an opportunity," — this is what grateful parents have said about the mentors. According to them, this gives them the strength to move forward and know they are on the right path.

"I am inspired by the feedback from parents who say that their child did not know anyone in the new city but found new friends in our space, as well as by mentors' stories that children come to them every day and do not want to leave the space. I am glad to be useful now for Ukraine and Ukrainian children, creating a high-quality and necessary service," shares the head of the project.


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