Member in Focus: TSA and Worldwide Foundation for Vulnerable Children
Throughout the ISSA Network, Members have been working hard to respond effectively in these uncertain times of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Bulgaria, two ISSA Members have joined forces in order to continue the provision of early education and parent support within homes during the COVID-19 crisis.
We interviewed Linka Toneva, program coordinator at Trust for Social Achievement Foundation (TSA), and Rossi Petrova, director of Worldwide Foundation for Vulnerable Children to learn more about their work during this pandemic. They shared major lessons that have come to the forefront during their efforts to provide effective responses - remain networking together, improve flexibility, and above all, remind each other the essential values of humanity.
Could you briefly explain your organization's work?
Linka: Our organization is focused on addressing inequality and poverty, and creating opportunities for people from disadvantaged groups in Bulgaria, with a focus on the Roma, 72% of whom currently live below the poverty line. As a grant-making organization, we support other organizations at a very local level, helping them to build capacity to perform their tasks within the trust-based relationship they have built with the members of the community they work with. Early years education and care services are still not affordable for many of the children living in poverty. We, therefore, advocate at the national level to guarantee access and affordability, a task in which we have been very successful. We also provide evidence-based information and data through the research we develop at the local level.
Rossi: Our organization works in the area of early childhood development and for over 10 years we’ve provided our trauma-informed, play-based programs with local rooted partners in different parts of the country, thus developing their capacities through training, supervision, and support. Currently, we collaborate with 26 organizations in 33 locations, reaching around 3,000 children with our program called Element of Play which combines three different ways to communicate with the children through play, music, and storytelling so that they can achieve their full development potential. Our partners range from Baby homes, hospitals, and kindergartens to ECD centers for children with mental and physical disadvantages, others for refugee children as well as organizations that provide informal ECD services to Roma children.
How have your organizations responded to the lockdown and the mitigation measures implemented?
Linka: In Bulgaria, the lockdown started very early and now, after over two months, measures are starting to be lifted. However, the schools will remain closed until September. This has been a very unusual, surprising, and unexpected situation for all of us. So the first step as institutions focused on education and ECD has been to try and organize distant learning for the children, especially for those who are at a crucial stage of their education, graduating or taking exams. Protecting this momentum of learning that had started and trying to keep normality while transferring all online has been key.
Our main efforts, as well as those of our local partners, have been to secure access to learning equipment, establishing liaisons with businesses and other partners of our network to provide tablets or laptops. Bulgarian private and non-governmental organizations, national and international donors, have founded a fund called United Against Covid-19 with approximately 500,000 euros to distribute to organizations on the ground, providing basic items to the most disadvantaged communities, from pencils and notebooks to hygiene products and food supplies.
Our organization has focused its efforts on supporting the health assistants and mediators working at the community level with a grant of 5,000 euro to provide good protection gear. They are the bridge between the health provision system and the local communities, and this has been of great importance as first responders. We continue distributing food packages and baby food through our Nurse-Family Partnership project (Sofia and Plovdiv) and our nutrition efforts (town of Sredec). Overall, we have tried to build up a holistic response: this is a crisis that affects all aspects of children and family life. And reaching the most locally active role models, not forgetting the under-served and most remote locations, has been essential to us.
Rossi: When the state of emergency started in Bulgaria, we adapted our Element of Play program to Element of Play at Home providing useful ideas to our partners through daily posts on Facebook and other channels like our web. We have also developed online training for these professionals so that they could learn how to transmit the Element of Play program to the parents. But then we realized that many families didn’t have the basic materials to work with their kids at home, such as pencils or crayons. So, we decided to send them one play kit per child, for all the kids in the family, no matter if they were attending the sessions or not. We distributed 310 kits in total.
Later we realized that other basic needs had to be met first because many parents actually didn’t have food to put on the table. So, we prepared three kinds of kits: the play one, another hygiene and sanitation one, and a third kit with food supplies. Our partners sent us the number of families in need, then we prepared the packages - with a letter of support to them - and organized the logistics to be able to reach the 33 locations. It has been a difficult task because at the end of March everything closed down in Bulgaria. But, together with our partners, we managed to distribute all of them in less than a week. In total, 140 families have benefited from this support.
What were the main challenges ECD practitioners had to face?
Linka: They have had to adapt very quickly to this new situation of distance learning and I have to say that teachers have been very proactive: trying to keep a normal pace of the educational process despite this difficult situation. We must not forget that many children have no internet access or no material to work from home. The nursery and kindergarten level were more deeply affected by the closure, and many professionals responded through forming social media groups and presenting tools and information for parents to support the learning process at home.
Rossi: We have been in close contact with our partners who had made a huge effort to support the families by distributing the kits and continuing to encourage positive parenting. They had to find flexible solutions and to work in close collaboration with local authorities. They told us how touched the families were: for some of these children this was the first time they received a package with things for them. Unfortunately, the current quarantine didn’t allow practitioners to remain in contact with the children since many of them don’t even have a telephone. We hope these play kits have helped parents to interact with the children so that they don’t feel stressed and tensions do not arise within the household.
What extra needs have you encountered in this last period in children, parents, and families?
Linka: Parents are an essential part of the programs related to the development of children at an early age. In this regard, focusing on parental skills in a changing situation is very important, mainly for kindergarten children. The staff of the kindergartens we work with have coordinated very well with parents to communicate through social media. These platforms have played a very important role in providing them with tips on how to engage their children in meaningful interactions, play-based but with an educational outcome. As far as we know, parents have responded very positively.
What lessons have you learned from this situation and which aspects of your work do you think will change in the future?
Linka: We have realized how important it is to be flexible, to adapt, and implement the project in changing times. Because the needs of the people you work with and to whom you address, and their priorities, might all of the sudden change, so we cannot firmly stick to the previous objectives and goals of our programs. It is also the time to rethink critically and reflect on our practices on the ground. We will be living in a post-COVID situation for still a long time and this will demand a lot of adaptation. What makes us happy and satisfied as an organization is that we have responded proactively when it has been needed, ready to support at the local level. In the future, something to further focus on will certainly be the area of parental skills and how to support them as caregivers and educators in difficult times.
Rossi: We have been reminded that life happens here and now. There is a lot of uncertainty so we have to remain very sensitive and responsive to the current situation. To achieve this, flexibility and adaptability become key. And, of course, we have realized how essential humanity is for society: crises like this one hit the poorest people the most. If we would not have been sensitive towards them, we would have failed as an organization. Lastly, the other lesson learned is that we can take advantage of every situation, no matter how hard it is. Our strength comes from our network of alike organizations because no man is an island. We see now how important it is to collaborate together: we wouldn’t have been able to reach our goals alone, no matter how much money or effort you put into it.
Have you thought of new programs that will have to come into place in the near future?
Linka: Many of our programs are directed towards the different aspects of the life cycle of the family. Those projects will really come to the forefront. When it comes to education, affordability of care and education will be a major priority in view of the potential economic impact of the pandemic. We are very much oriented towards programs related to quality and child-centered education methodology and this will prevail, together with a strong focus on access to education.
Rossi: Our next step is to draw a plan with our partners on how to go back to certain normality. Hopefully, they will start organizing play sessions in a cautious way, in small groups, and educating parents on how to protect their children and stay healthy. These children need to continue learning, to remain active and in social contact with the other kids because we are talking of remotely marginalized areas where the most impoverished families live. With no schools, no ECD services, the work of our partners becomes absolutely essential.
Could you share some words of wisdom on how you are personally experiencing this new crisis?
Linka: This current situation is very difficult for parents. They are often professionals working from home, they are caregivers and educators to their children, as well as home economists. So many roles in one that have to be performed…All my admiration goes to them. We have to honor them, to honor us, in these difficult times, and have grace. We have to really support each other, keeping our network strong, constantly engaging and exchanging with partners, as professionals but also as individuals who have something to share. ISSA is a great example and platform for this.
Rossi: The current challenges came out from the uncertainty we are living, not knowing what will happen. In this regard, we have to remain calm, to process the little information we have in a rational and patient way. This is my word of wisdom: to deal with stress in a clear-minded way.