Humble beginnings, unwavering ambition and a desire to help all children reach their potential – that is the story of Mali dom, a daycare and rehabilitation program in Zagreb, Croatia.
Since 1997, Mali dom has provided services to more than 1,300 children and adolescents with multiple disabilities and visual impairment (MDVI). The program has also emerged as a regional resource, with staff conducting teacher trainings and seminars across the Balkans.
It all began with three part-time teachers working out of a few spare rooms in a local school for the blind. At the time there were no services in Croatia available for children with MDVI.
"I consider Mali dom a success because we started from scratch with just a few kids and without much outside support," said Director Darija Udovicic. "The most important thing is we have touched the lives of many families and children. We have improved and raised the quality of their lives and helped them find their place in society."
Perkins International began partnering with Mali dom in the late 1990s, offering consultation services and semi-annual staff training seminars that continue today. In recent years, Perkins International also provided travel stipends so program staff could offer their expertise in Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Romania and Serbia.
"The staff at Mali dom is a tightly focused group of professionals who want to make an impact not only across Croatia but in the Balkan region," said Dennis Lolli, Europe and Eurasia coordinator for Perkins International. "They take very seriously what they do. They are driven."
The city of Zagreb began funding Mali dom in 2009. The program is now headquartered in a spacious facility with new equipment. Professional development remains a priority for the staff.
"There has always been an encouraging atmosphere to gain new knowledge and actually implement it immediately and share it with colleagues," said Udovicic. "We see it as an ongoing process. You can always do more, be better and never stop thinking of what you can do differently to improve the program or get more out of each child."
Each weekday more than 120 children and adolescents with MDVI receive services at Mali dom, which in English translates to "small home." At the daycare and rehabilitation program, students engage in classroom activities and occupational therapy. Early intervention, assessment and counseling are also provided.
Borna, 11, who was born with multiple disabilities, enrolled at Mali dom in 2009. At the time he was unable to feed himself and was highly sensitive to changes in his routine.
Today Borna has improved his motor skills to the point where he now holds his own utensils during meals. He is also more flexible regarding changes to his daily schedule.
"Borna is a very cheerful and curious boy," said Udovicic. "He enjoys a variety of activities, including therapeutic swimming and sensory integration therapy."
Thanks to Mali dom, children like Borna are reaping the benefits of increased access to education and services. When the program started, providing services for students with multiple disabilities was a low priority in Croatia.
"There has been a great change in awareness and acceptance of people with disabilities within our society in the last 17 years," said Udovicic. "We surely think we helped influence that, especially regarding the right to educational services for children with multiple disabilities and the need for early intervention programs."