It’s a typical busy morning inside Mali dom, Croatia’s premier program for children and young adults with multiple disabilities.
On the ground floor, 6-month-old Ivan is undergoing a vision assessment. His parents traveled four hours to receive expert advice from the staff here.
Next door in the pool, Leon, 4, is enjoying an aquatic therapy session. He floats contently in the warm water with the help of an instructor.
Bustling classrooms fill the three floors above. Each is brimming with smiling students and well-trained teachers and therapists.
This is what a model program looks like.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work to get here,” said Director Darija Udovicic. “We’ve invested a lot in professional development. Perkins played a major part in this.”
Since 1997, Perkins International has trained staff at Mali dom in an ongoing effort to transform the once-fledgling NGO into a regional resource center. Four Mali dom employees have graduated from the Educational Leadership Program (ELP), Perkins International’s flagship teacher training initiative.
Mali dom – the name means "Small Home" – is located in Zagreb, the capital and largest city in Croatia. The city funds the daycare and rehabilitation program, which provides a full spectrum of services to hundreds of children and young adults, ages 0 to 21. Mali dom also offers trainings and study visits to special educators working across the Balkans, including in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia.
All of this was accomplished over two decades, after Mali dom was founded as Croatia’s first program for children with multiple disabilities.
"Societal awareness has really changed in the last 20 years," said Udovicic. "I can say we did a lot to help make that change happen."
For Anna, 20, who has low vision and cerebral palsy, the school program at Mali dom has played a profound role in her development. She arrived as a shy, non-verbal toddler.
"She wasn't producing any sound," said therapist Ivana Macokatió, a 2008 ELP graduate. "Now she has a lot of vocabulary and really expresses herself a lot."
In Macokatió’s movement therapy class, Anna and seven of her peers sit in a circle and pass around a large, colorful drum. As Macokatió taps a steady rhythm, Anna holds out her hand and smiles as she feels the vibrations pulsing from the drum head.
Next up are vocal exercises. As soon as Macokatió hits play on a YouTube video, the class breaks into a chorus of singing and humming.
"This is a chance for Anna to express herself," said Macokatió. "She likes to be social and communicate with people through singing and rhythm."
For Udovicic, stories like Anna's illustrate the transformative power education and support services can have on individuals with multiple disabilities.
Before Mali dom was founded, children and young adults in Croatia like Anna would simply be left at home. That they now have a place to learn – and thrive – gives families new hope and keeps Udovicic and her staff focused on their mission.
"Everyone deserves opportunities in life, including these kids," she said. "But you have to create them. They don't come by themselves."