JOURNAL ISSUE 2
1999/2000

table of contents | abstracts

 

Means of Prevention in Community Youth Work

Gordana Forcic

 


ABSTRACT

Suncokret is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that was organized in 1992 by a group of Croatian students and young professionals to respond to the needs of children and youth in refugee camps. As the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina has ended, Suncokret has focused more on preparing people for resettlement and providing support in local communities. Community youth centers provide youth with a variety of discussion groups as well as workshops in areas such as film making, music, drama, computers, and so forth. A program of prevention and education is also offered in the school; groups of 10-18 youth meet weekly to consider matters related to their psychosocial development. A program of work with youth in collective centers helps prepare youth for transition to their communities and to participate in their communities.

Suncokret is a non-governmental, non profit organization registrated in 1992 in Croatia. Suncokrets' mission is to address the psychological, social, cultural, and environmental consequences of war and social change in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Suncokret aims to mitigate the effects of conflict through local and international participation in social, renewal, peace-building, and post-war social reconstruction.

In Summer 1992 a group of students and young professionals from Croatia, joined by international volunteers, responded to the needs of refugee children and youth by working and living in some of the biggest and most deprived refugee centers in Croatia. Financial resources which were barely sufficient to cover some crayons and paper; the project grew, however, with imagination and commitment to a vital program serving all ages of refugees and displaced persons. In normal circumstances this group of relatively inexperienced young professionals and volunteers would have never dreamed of engaging themselves in the difficult task of helping children to cope and overcome the stressful experiences of war and relocation. The war induced the feeling of responsibility to address the problem and act with immediacy. The desire to support and improve services to refugees and displaced persons was the birth of Suncokret.

As the work progressed, it became clear that a short-term crisis response was inadequate and that a long-term perspective was mandated. Need for a clear organizational structure began to be a priority, and a slow and difficult period of change ensued. A structure is now in place with clear roles and responsibilities for proper use of a professional staff as co-ordinators and supervisors. The professional staff includes social workers, psychologists, teachers, and other professionals.

Suncokret has developed concrete policies, training, programs and a qualified professional staff to meet various needs of people of all ages affected by the war. The focus is on the psycho-social needs of children, teenagers, women, and senior citizens living in collective centers and in the local communities. Increasingly, Suncokret is engaged in community development and has started to develop work using community centers to facilitate participation of all people living there in activities

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which improve the quality of their lives and self sufficiency. Generally, programmes are carried out through a range of social, recreational, creative, educational, and self-help activities.

Suncokret aims to empower people to take control of their lives and communities. It has been welcomed and received requests from all parts of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina for services. Suncokret has been influential in the growth and development of NGOs in Croatia and has:

  • provided services in over thirty collective centers throughout Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina,
  • supported local initiatives for community development in five regions of Croatia, and
  • trained and supervised over 2000 local and international volunteers to work in collective centers and local communities.

Most international humanitarian organizations have withdrawn from Croatia and the majority of local humanitarian organizations have stopped providing support due to lack of finances. This has created feelings of abandonment and despair among refugee/displaced population Suncokret has, however, continued working with people in collective centers. In most centers Suncokret stayed as the only remaining organization supporting the remaining people and providing an array of services.

Suncokret works in twelve collective centers in five regions of Croatia organizing educational, creative, recreational, and other activities for all age groups. The work in all of these collective centers is, whenever possible, spread into the local communities around them, so that privately accommodated refugees and displaced persons as well as the local population are able to join these programmes. Suncockret provides group and individual support to prepare people to return their communities from collective centers.

Suncokret has also started several projects of direct support to the people who have returned. During 1996 Suncokret started work in Topusko, a town of returnees, some 100 kilometers southeast from Zagreb. Several public actions were organized to clean the surroundings; a Suncokret Summer Camp for children and teenagers was held during July and August 1996. Local authorities have provided for the community center for ten years. The Topusko Summer Camp involves about 300 children and teenagers (displaced, refugees, socially deprived) during July and August. Suncokret has also conducted a needs assessment in the town of Knin and is waiting for positive replay from local authorities regarding adequate space for a youth community center. In Karlovac, Suncokret is engaged is supporting displaced children from Turanj. Since 1995 we have organized four Suncokret Theatre Workshops using the Theatre of Opressed technique, for war traumatized children and local professionals working with them. Community youth centers and programs of psycho-social support and education are all the models of primary prevention in work with children and youth.

COMMUNITY YOUTH CENTERS

Work with youth is of high priority for Sunkokret which has established and opened community youth centers in several towns of Croatia. The Community Youth Centre in Zagreb illustrates the work.

Young people need special attention; the stress of normal psycho-physical changes, and intesified by the war experiences. Adolescents have been forced to face the realities of life too quickly. Many teenagers lack formal education, opportunities to investigate and experiment, and to find their own avenue for accomplishment. A considerable number of today's young generation face difficulties in socialization. Inertia and lack of interest are characteristics of this phenomenon called by some experts as "the pessimism about the future." These young persons who do not see any future, do not think they can influence their own life, and give up to what is going to happen. The social environment in Croatia that has been marked by war, destruction, and suffering contributes to the fatalism. The present state has made many young people resign--they do not see any need for creative activities. Young people with socialization problems often lack ambition and accept the rules of the street including vices such as drugs, alcohol, and violence.

One of the best ways to prevent addictions, anti-social behaviors and pessimism of the future is to provide youth with the place and environment where they will feel accepted, where they will form new friendships and get support from their peers, express freely their opinion and be involved in different kinds of activities to focus their attention on some constructive patterns of behaviour. Youth centers provide such opportunities. The youth center is a place where youth, including local

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population as well as refugees and displaced persons from collective and private accommodations can come to creatively express themselves and actively use their free time. Centers weren't possible during this war because of the basic security of citizens and lack of finances; but now, there is an increasing need for such places. Displaced and refugee youth living in private accommodations (approximately 80% of displaced and refugee population live in private accommodation) are showing a need for integration with their peers. This can be accomplished in community youth centers where youth could be involved in different activities. The Centre serves all local adolescents of Zagreb, aged 13-21 as well as all refugee and displaced adolescents living in either collective centers or private accommodation. Aims of the community youth center are to:

  1. provide structured activities in a new and encouraging atmosphere for youth,
  2. enable adolescents to do useful things, to feel useful, to take responsibility for their own behaviour, and will provide them with the sense of self-esteem,
  3. develop healthy lifestyles,
  4. meet the needs of adolescents for positive affirmation,
  5. meet the needs of adolescents for peer support,
  6. prevent pessimism of future through organizing groups of adolescents who will initiate and organize different activities and involve other adolescents in the organization,
  7. prevent addictions and other types of anti-social behaviors in youth through active and constructive usage of free time, and
  8. integrate displaced and refugee youth population with their peers

The center works to accomplish these matters. They have a youth club, discussion groups, and a series of special workshops.

Youth Centre's Club has been organized so youth can get and create a place where they will be able to organize their free time, spend time with their peers, and develop positive forms of communication and behavior. The young people expressed a need to have a place where they would be able to come in their free time, and which would not be a disco or a cafe, but a club where they would be able to read the newspaper, listen to music, and have a talk on different subjects. Therefore, the Youth Centre is open every day. In the Club, the youth is welcomed by Youth Centre leader and youth assistant. If necessary, the assistant offers both professional and emotional support, is encouraged to participate in Youth Centre activities, and is encouraged to actively solve the problems they encounter. An information desk is operated within the Youth Centre Club. It offers the youth information about the center and its activities, motivates them to become regular visitors of the center, and offers them a chance to express their interests, suggestions, and ideas and to participate actively in the work of the Youth Centre.

Round Tables address adolescents' numerous dilemmas, self-evaluations, and their need for support. Youth start questioning themselves, they search for their physical and psycho-social identity. A need arises for stepping out of the family and creating one's own circle of friends where they will be able to satisfy their need for assertion, respect and self-respect, and for answering doubts and checking the information they receive daily through different sources. Weekly round table discussion topics such as the changes occurring in youth, various drugs and self-protection methods, insecurity, anxiety before exam, social anxiety, communication improvement and strengthening of self-confidence provide the youth with information on one of the mentioned subjects, as well as stimulate them to work in small discussion groups.

Round tables are led by youth center leaders and psychologists, social workers, educators, and teachers who work in the Youth Centre as professional collaborators. The professionals follow the needs and interests of the young and occasionally also organize lectures with topics outside of the psycho-social field such as ecological topics, science, hiking, art, and so forth.

Professionals in the Youth Community Centre monitor the needs of the youth and direct and organize workshops to assist youth. The objective is to have the youth active in preparation, organization, and implementation of all the programs in the center. Participation provides youth with feelings of importance and usefulness, they are satisfying their need for positive affirmation and focusing their energy on constructive activities which alleviates the pessimism of the future. The following workshops are examples.


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FILM NIGHTS

Some youth show a great interest in film and learning about the elements of film, filming methods, film genres and ways of acting, as well as in conversations on the impressions a film has made on them. They are often ready to make connections between the motivation of film heroes and real life or universal human values. Weekly film nights encourage young people to talk about these aspects; stimulate moral values in young people, and discuss ethical concepts.

 

DESIGN AND CREATIVITY WORKSHOP

Youth show interest in various kinds of art. They are interested in both practical work (making various works of art in different visual art techniques) and theoretical knowledge of visual arts. This workshop provides both educational and entertaining components and develops their sense of the aesthetic as well as their ecological awareness. Youth, assisted by professional advice, design the Youth Centre premises and redecorate them in order to have a feeling it is theirs and to feel at home. The young present their works to the public and in this way achieve respect and strengthen self-respect. The workshop takes place once a week for two hours.

 

DRAMA GROUP

Adolescents have need for self-assertion in the peer group. They search for identity, proper ways of behavior and experiences, and also feel a need to be someone else and experience various life situations. Theatre allows for this. This workshop enables youth to get to know themselves, relieves their social anxiety and anxiety of public appearances, satisfies their need to belong to their peer group, and improves their speech and communication skills. The youth become more important and positively express their creative energy through rehearsing and performing plays. The drama group takes place twice a week. The youth are educated about producing plays, drama analysis, and characters' motivation.

 

HELP IN LEARNING

Learning and school are among the most important parts of any young person's life. Children who experience failure at school often develop asocial behavior. School is particularly important for adolescents since secondary school partly determines their future life. Croation school curricula are difficult and demanding, and most families do not have financial means to pay for extra lessons. Therefore, the Centre offers help to the youth in scientific and art subjects. Tutoring takes place twice a week.

 

MUSIC WORKSHOP

Music is a way of expressing oneself and one's identity. By listening to music the youth express their belonging to a certain group and lifestyle. This is important since youth define themselves in relation to others. Music creation is also important in the life of numerous young people. The music workshop provides music listening facilities where youth can listen to the music they like and learn elements of music as well as the criteria for evaluating the quality of a piece of music. At the same time the youth are encouraged to socialize and have fun.

 

COMPUTER WORKSHOP

The computer has become the best form of learning and and has almost inexhaustible potential for research, learning, developing different skills, and is attractive entertainment. Computers are interesting to the young because they offer new forms of learning and also respond to their need for new information and new entities. Many families cannot afford a computer; therefore, we would like

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to organize a computer workshop and enable the young to encounter modern ideas and communication using the internet.

The Youth Centre encourages youth to self-organize through activities within and out side the Youth Centre. One of the goals is to encourage the youth to participate in and organize activities useful for the residents of the local community. Examples are to help the elderly, the handicapped, go on ecological drives, etc. Young people can develop a positive self-image through helping other people, generosity, care for others, and sense of usefulness

Suncokret's Youth Center staff cooperates with different institutions including libraries, cinemas, sport and recreational organizations, as well as with experts and organizations providing psycho-social care (doctors, psychologists, hospitals-departments for addictions, Center for Social Welfare, and so forth).

Work with adolescents is very demanding. Therefore youth leaders are provided with service training on a regular basis regarding new techniques for work with adolescents.

The program and its implementation are evaluated by Suncokret beneficiaries, staff, and other professionals involved in youth work. The aim of the evaluation is to determine if the adolescents are more active and take more responsibility for the design of the program. The evaluation uses both objective and subjective indications:

a. objective indications:

  • the number of teenagers taking part in the activities
  • the number of teenagers taking part in the planning process and in programme evaluations
  • the qualifications and skills reached in educational activities

b. subjective indications:

  • qualitative: focused group discussions aiming to asses the success in reaching the program goals reducing aggressive behavior between teenagers
  • quantitative: various assessment and self-assessment scales for beneficiaries and staff (with clear standards for performance)

Evaluation procedures include:

  • daily evaluation through journal entries, recorded by staff
  • monthly evaluations through focused group discussions of teens and staff
  • biweekly assessments of the work at workers' supervision meetings
  • three month evaluations of the external indications by staff
  • six month general evaluations by the management of the center
  • yearly general evaluations by independent professionals (social workers, psychologists and other professionals with experience in the field of youth work)

PROGRAM OF PREVENTION AND EDUCATION FOR YOUTH

The Program of Prevention and Education for Youth is carried out in schools in groups of ten to eighteen members. The program was started because puberty and adolescence are periods when young people are confronted with significant changes in life connected to their physical as well as psychological maturing and growth. To form socially acceptable attitudes and behaviors, young people need to share their fears and hopes, as well as receive support, understanding, correct information, and facts. The program is applied in schools or other locations where young people live or work. The program includes subjects such as love and understanding between sexes, psychosocial aspects of and addiction, qualitative ways using spare time, and healthy ways of life. Aims of the program are:

  1. Help young people to go through the process of maturation as easy as possible and to adopt socially acceptable attitudes and behaviors.
  2. Prevent socially unacceptable, asocial, delinquent behaviours, addiction, spreading
    sexually transmitted diseases, underage pregnancy, premature sexual intercourse, and conflict behaviors in family and close surroundings.
  3. Enable children and the young people to develop positive self-images, to get to know and respect themselves, their skills and abilities, to recognize and respect emotions, to accept and like their own bodies, to develop themselves as self confident, independent and responsible persons who feel loved, and who know how to love and accept the people different from them.
  4. Make decisions that emphasize and support personal responsibility for life choices.
  5. decrease pessimism about the future and stimulate a more optimistic attitude.
  6. Stimulate development of good relationships with parents, teachers, peers;
  7. Teach young people that there are different kinds of positive, non-violent, and constructive communication.

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The leader's role is to direct activities and stimulate the discussion. Each group meets once a week for nintey minutes. Two hours are scheduled each week when pupils could come to talk individually even if they are not the group members. Parents' meetings are held once a month in the school for ninety minutes. Parents offer topics which are discussed with pupils. Special attention is paid on the parents' role in preventing socially unacceptable behaviour and addictions of children.

Youth were also provided workshops. Open, free communication stimulates children to discuss and exchange experiences and fears, and to share information with support, help, and guidance of an adult leader. Excursusions and interactive games are directed to increase self-confidence, self-esteem, positive self-image, the development of positive, non-violent forms of communication, and to strengthen group cohesion and dynamics.

Group members are introduced to information crucial to forming socially acceptable attitudes about love and understanding between sexes and about addictions. Lectures and discussions, educational films, unfinished sentences, and preliminary tests provide insight of how much and what kind of information the group members have about each topic. Quizzes, associative games, tests, and the correction of incorrect stories are used to check information. The checking and forming of socially acceptable attitudes is carried out through role playing connected with problems, problem cards are directed to develop group discussion, poll questionnaires, and tests with questions.

To evaluate the program, group members completed standardized questions to measure:

  • own mood at the beginning of the group meeting,
  • usefulness of topics,
  • satisfaction with interactive games,
  • own mood at the end of the group meeting, and
  • satisfaction with the work of the group leaders.

Frequency of attending the group meetings was regarded: Suncokret's program leaders rated the level of interest and activity. At the beginning of the year pupils answered questions about expectations: at the and of the year they answered questions about satisfaction with the programme. Pre- and post-tests were used to measure knowledge aquisition. The attitudes of users of the program were evaluated with subjective estimation by Suncokret leaders.

The program was started in 1994 as a pilot project in three primary schools in Zagreb. During the 1995/96 and 96/97 school years, the program expanded to four primary schools, four centers for refugee and displaced people in the Zagreb area, and to two schools in Osijek. Three hundred and fifty children participated. Various Ministries recommended the project and thought it was needed, but there was no financial support. Despite excellent results and expressed satisfaction, the project was temporarily stopped in February 1997 due to financial reasons.

 

WORK WITH YOUTH IN COLLECTIVE CENTERS

Secondary prevention is focused on early detection and intervention. Youth, especially those living in collective centers are increasingly aggressive and anti-social. As a model of secondary prevention, Suncokret developed a program for teenagers in collective centers.

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In 1993 Suncokret invited a professional team from Children's Village, New York, to provide training and support to individuals working in the collective centers located throughout Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The emphasis was to view refugee and displaced people's collective centers as transitional communities, to promote self-determination, and to increase the ability of individuals living in the centers to cope with their situations. The project was intended to assist those working in collective centers to work more effectively with traumatized adolescents behaving in unmanageable and violent ways. Suncokret and a team of eight workers from the Children's Village, a large residential treatment center for acutely traumatized and troubled youth, planned the program and worked in Varazdin Refugee camp to bring order and to make life more bearable for children and teenagers brutalized by the war. A community approach was chosen because a total community response to trauma is the most helpful and the most healing. The aims of the programme were:

  1. To build a teen center and create a teen council as vehicles for inspiring the teens to control their own environment and resolve conflicts,
  2. To teach the process of problem identification and problem solving; to develop co-operation and other group work skills,
  3. To develop a conflict resolution program to teach alternatives to violence, promote healthy control over one's own life, and responsibility for one's actions.
  4. To develop a video club and produce a video letter as a means of self-expression, creative conflict resolution, involvement of the local community, and development of leadership qualities and self-esteem.

Three principles of working in a group living situation were emphasized throughout the project. First, refugee centers must be viewed as transitional communities. The importance of building a sense of community with individuals living in a defined space--even if they have been brought together by necessity or coercion, rather then by choice--is fundamental to the implementation of all the other principles. A community response to trauma is the most hopeful and the most useful position to adopt in this kind of work. Services or activities provided for the refugee population's need to be offered within the framework of community needs and the creative involvement of community members in identifying, prioritizing and solving community problems. The environment in the camp must be structured to encourage and promote self-determination, responsibility, respect for oneself, and respect for all others in the community,

Second, the community must be purposefully structured to promote safety and predictability and to maximize the opportunity for normal routines. Predictability involves the structuring of the environment in the community to maximize the possibility that people will know what's going to happen next. In a refugee camp this involves such things as providing information about a range of issues. It also means establishing routines (e.g. clear procedures for the distribution of humanitarian aid, rules that are clear, etc.). Predictable routines serve to reduce anxiety and promote healing. For refugees to feel any control over a situation and circumstance which is basically out of their control, they need to be able to relate to their immediate situation differently. Building a community and taking control to the extent reality permits must come from the refugees' own desire to live differently. Promoting self determination and some control over life in the camps involves such things as making sure camp workers ask, not tell, the refugees how it is they want to make their lives better in the camp.

Third, learning and practicing positive behaviors and changing negative, destructive behaviour. Many of the youth have developed aggressive, destructive behaviours that are an understandable response to prolonged exposure to violence and feelings of powerlessness. Empathizing with the reason a youth develops aggressive behavior is not the same thing as permitting the behaviour. Adults are needed to set limits, make things safe, give hope, and communicate caring. These are essential ingredients to allow youth to give up aggression. Alternative behaviours, one learned, must be repeatedly practiced. The reflex of aggression is first replaced by deliberately choosing an alternative. The new behaviours become more automatic only after a great deal of repetition and practice in using less violent responses. The key messages are choice and taking responsibility for one's actions.

A few months before the project started, Suncokret workers had created a teen center in an existing building. Within 24 hours, the teens had destroyed the room, wrote obscenities all over the walls, spilled paint everywhere, and broke all the furniture. There had never been any consequences for any of the teens involved, and none of their parents had been asked to assume any role in dealing with this occurrence. After that there was no space provided for any teenage activities. For the most part, the

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teenagers hung around the halls and created problems. They were bored, restless, and anxious about their futures. If we asked the teenagers what it was they needed and wanted, surely the issue of space would come up but we didn't want to ask the question until we saw a possible solution to this problem. With permission from camp management we found a possible site. At one edge of the camp, there was a row of sheds with rear walls and partial overhangs. The sheds were approximately twenty separate areas, marked off by beams. They were filthy and wet. The teens had been guided to identify needs and set priorities on the first meeting with teenagers. They had began to organize themselves and they elected a small group of teens who would be responsible for planning the building of a teen center. Adults who could assist were identified and teens volunteered to approach them to ask for their help. A core group of teens emerged as a leadership group to assume responsibility for a teen council to be formal later. Building the teen center acted as catalyst for building the community. The spin-off from the experience created a natural bridge to necessary next steps--continued conflict resolution work, the continuation of the teen council as a self-governing body, and the continued identification and implementation of activities for the teenagers to span a large variety of programs.

The video workshops were parallel with building the teen center. Creating a video letter for youth in the refugee camp was expected to include skill development (team work, communication skills, decision making, problem solving, technical video skills, and so forth) and personal development (self-reflection, creative expression, insight, self-esteem, respect for diversity, etc.) Work with the ten teens who had been selected for the project was rigorous but always constructive and positive. In the beginning they met for approximately three hours a day, learning about the equipment and talking about what they wanted to say in their film and how to say it. They finally decided they wanted to try to show a glimpse of their lives before the war and to show how the war had affected them and their families. It seemed important to them that others saw them as regular kids. They chose the name Kolaps, Latin for collapse, for their film. Both the process and the final product surprised them with its intensity and the extent to which their lives in the camp had been transformed. In the process they learned a lot about themselves and about one another. They also acquired technical skills about filming, editing, production, and the care and repair of the equipment. This project proved to be important beyond expectation. The youth produced a moving and important video letter has been shown to others outside the camp. Teens who had been hanging out in the halls, causing trouble, were now deeply engaged in constructive work.

The work in the camp was highly successful. The young people in Varazidin Refugee camp with whom we worked responded positively to our program, despite the traumas they had suffered and the defenses they had built to keep the world away. That they were as responsive as they were and that they are doing as well as they are psychologically is a credit to the society that existed before the war--a society that instilled self-esteem, valued, and expectations.

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