Children are one of the most vulnerable social groups in peacetime, let alone wartime, constantly needing exceptional support. For children with learning disabilities in Ukraine, the challenges are even greater. Many are now displaced, living with their parents in unfamiliar places, often sharing space with other families.
The Klein Child Development Centre is in the heart of Rivne in western Ukraine. For two years now, it has been operating under the Svitankova Zoria 777 NGO, which was founded by Olha Symonchuk in 2011.
“I’ve always loved the rising star – Svitankova Zoria; it’s the beginning of everything. However, when we registered the organisation, the name was already taken so we decided to add some digits to keep the name we wanted,” Olha recalled.
In 2022, Svitankova Zoria 777 received support for a centre for children with disabilities from the EU4Dialogue programme, funded by the European Union and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme. EU4Dialogue aims to build a solid foundation for peace by creating better socioeconomic conditions and a safe environment for war-affected communities.
The centre offers the services of speech therapists, a child psychologist, correctional educators, and music teachers.
“It’s always interesting to be involved in new projects. This way, more people learn about our activities and so we can help others. Our project is diverse: there are a lot of events, and we work with professionals. It brings pleasure and results,” said Olha Symonchuk.
The centre’s team includes pedagogues, speech therapists, and psychologists who work with children with various forms of autism and delayed mental or language development. If children without disabilities want to work with a speech and language therapist or attend dance or music classes, they go to the same group as those with disabilities.
“It is important to understand that there should be more children without disabilities in an inclusive group. They see people with disabilities in society, so from an early age, they consider it normal. Children with special needs are drawn to their peers and constantly learn from them,” said Olha.
Mark Vladymyrov has worked at the Klein Centre as a psychologist with children with behavioural disorders for two years, and has worked with colleagues on art therapy sessions for the children.
“I work with children with mental retardation, sometimes with various phobias. The oldest boy is 16 years old the youngest girl is one and a half, and both have a mild developmental delay,” says Mark.
In June 2022, Olena Yatsenko, a sensory integration specialist who moved from Bila Tserkva with her daughter after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started working at the centre. Olena and her colleagues have conducted over 200 sensory-motor integration classes for children.
“At first, we lived in an IDP dormitory, where we met very welcoming people who tried to create comfortable living conditions for us. This hospitality won us over, so we stayed in Rivne,” says Olena. “It is important for me to work with children with disabilities because I firmly believe I can help them. I see impressive results because children overcome the problems they came with. A child who does not receive appropriate help in time cannot adapt to society,” she added.
In January 2023, 20-year-old Anna Korolchuk joined the centre’s team to teach group music classes. The most significant result of working in groups is socialisation. At first, the child adapts individually to a teacher, and a bit later, they join a group of peers.
Children without disabilities also attend music classes to ensure inclusion and help others learn to interact with each other.
“Music affects the child’s overall mental state, emotions, and feelings. If the child is in a good mood, the parents are in a good mood, too,” said Anna.
“It’s wonderful to see the results. Today, I had a girl who has attended group classes five times. At first, she didn’t want to work; it was hard for her to adapt. And today, I saw her doing every exercise and being involved in the process. Although not everything works out, seeing the children’s eyes light up is very motivating,” she said.
Since the centre was founded, the team has also employed a language therapist, 24-year-old Olha Myronchuk, who explained the challenges of working with children after the full-scale invasion. She said the war had significantly affected speech development, and children were more likely to experience delays in speaking. She also noted that displaced children were more anxious: they get scared if the door slams, but they are already used to the sounds of air raid alarms.
“When a new child comes to us, the whole team works with them,” says Olha Myronchuk.
“It is important for me to work with children with disabilities so that they can heal. I want them to use speech in their lives, to be understood by their parents and others,” Olha said. “I like the integrated approach of the whole team. When a new child comes to us, a psychologist, a speech therapist, and a sensory psychologist work with them — the whole team.”
The centre’s team also includes a psychologist who works with parents to help them better interact with their children and support their development.
“Sometimes, you look at a child and realise you need to start with the parents. If they listen to the specialist, the collaboration is successful. If parents are lazy or feel sorry for their children and allow them to do whatever they want, this can lead to setbacks,” said Olha Symonchuk.
Hanna Romanchenko is the mother of four-year-old Danylo, who has a mild speech delay. Having lived for a month in their native Kramatorsk after the full-scale invasion, they first sought refuge in Zakarpattia and then moved to Rivne on the advice of their friends.
“When we arrived at the dormitory in Rivne, we immediately started looking for a place to work with our child — word of mouth helped. We hadn’t known about this centre before, and the music and dance classes here are excellent. We managed to become participants in the project, so my son was given free sessions for a while. The child began to progress, to speak,” said Hanna.
Olha Symonchuk says that children who do not feel well in their new home can come to the centre with their parents and spend some free time there. However, the centre’s premises are not the only location where Olha and her colleagues organise events and classes. The project has organised three pet therapy sessions for 110 children at the Rivne Zoo.
In addition to events and hiring new specialists, the project also purchased equipment for classrooms and halls, including trampolines, mats, balls, exercise equipment, etc.
After the full-scale invasion, the centre suspended its activities for three weeks. However, on the parents’ proposal, it was one of the first organisations in the city to reopen. Almost half the visitors are children of IDPs, military personnel, and those in difficult circumstances. Parents say the centre creates all the conditions for their children to feel comfortable. Some families have returned to Rivne just to continue their children’s activities at the centre.
“Every mother fights for her child until the last,” said Olha Symonchuk, the founder of Svitankova Zoria 777 and the Klein Child Development Centre.
“This is my personal experience. Back then, I had no help; I didn’t even know where to turn. When you meet a mum like you, you know how you can help her. It seems to me that every mother fights for her child until the last. This is our destiny as mothers,” said Olha, her voice trembling.
Author: Marharyta Lubkova
The original article published by UNDP Ukraine
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