Lucia Kossarova, co-founder of the Slovakian program BUDDY, explains how building long-term trusting relationships benefits institutionalized children in Slovakia.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner: Where did the idea for BUDDY come from?
Lucia Kossarova: It all started in 2006 when my brother Ladislav stopped in a shopping mall to buy a bracelet from children living in a children’s home. He visited the home and asked how he could help, and the caregivers said the children needed to spend quality time with adults away from the institution. You might not be aware, but there are 5,000 children in approximately 100 children’s homes in Slovakia.
So my brother and employees in his company put together a one-week camp for children from various children’s homes. I came along to help, as did other friends.
We were just volunteers who took a week of holiday to spend with these kids, and it became immediately obvious how they all need individual care and attention. I ran across a field after a 9-year-old boy who tried to run away from the camp. When I caught up with him, I realized he did this to get attention. And he got it: the two of us sat in a restaurant chatting over a glass of lemonade. Even though there were so many of us volunteers, we struggled to make sure each child got what they needed. Their need was overwhelming.
CSG: It does sound overwhelming. What made you keep going?
LK: Patience, persistence, and love. We thought about how grateful we are for how we grew up: fortunate with our high-quality education, and the love received from our family, friends and wider community. We felt there is something special, real and very tangible we could do for kids that cannot, for a range of reasons, grow up in a family.
Initially we focused on the children‘s skill development. But then we realized that we will get nowhere if these children don’t have anybody who can help them with life’s challenges – at least one person they can trust and rely on. The “aha” moment came when my brother ran into a volunteer from an early training session who said he had stayed in touch with one of the kids for the past eight years. It became clear that while a family is the ideal place for a child, for those who cannot be placed in a family we need to find at least one caring adult, a “buddy”.
CSG: Hence the name “BUDDY”. But how did you put this idea into practice?
LK: After eight years of trial and error, we changed from organizing experiential learning events for children, which was not sustainable, to a “train the trainer” model where we work with volunteers, who then work with the children long-term.
“While a family is the ideal place for a child, for those who cannot be placed in a family we need to find at least one caring adult, a ‘buddy’.”
In talking about attachment theory with psychologists, we were advised that our model is most suitable for older children, starting around age 12, since younger children may form an inappropriate attachment to their volunteer. We learned that if the children in our program feel safe with their volunteer and start to trust them, it may even mitigate some of their experiences in the early years and allow them to create healthier relationships with themselves and others.
This long-term attachment can help them overcome a range of psychological and emotional challenges. So from the age of 12, we have about six years before a young person leaves the children’s home, which is the most difficult and feared moment in the young person’s life.
CSG: Why is that moment so important?
LK: When young people are at that intersection – when they leave the institution – most of them don’t have healthy social networks and have not learned essential life skills. Some of them may be in touch with their biological families which struggle themselves. Their parents may be in prison. Most of them have nobody to call for advice or support.
During the years with their BUDDY, they don’t just meet the volunteer. The volunteer has friends, a family, is surrounded by people who go to work, make a living, take care of themselves. For children to see these positive examples of everyday relationships is essential because most of them have not had that opportunity.
CSG: When you started working with this “train the trainer” model, did the authorities feel you were criticizing the social system or competing with them?
LK: We’ve faced some skepticism, but have managed to demonstrate that we are serious about helping these children and that we are professional. We have been working with the state homes for nine years, they have been very supportive. The 18 contracts that we have now with children’s homes in western Slovakia are in fact contracts with the state.
“For children to see these positive examples of everyday relationships is essential because most of them have not had that opportunity.”
BUDDY shows how a non-profit organization can cooperate with various stakeholders: the state, private donors, academia, and corporate partners. We have an expert program lead who ensures that our program is in the best interest of the children, and the people working in the homes are happy that we help their kids thrive.
The children’s basic physical needs are very well taken care of by the state; we try to provide the one-on-one healthy relationships of trust with a caring adult that have been missing from these kids’ lives. It’s essential that our volunteer cares for them for free, unlike anybody else in the social care system.
CSG: How do you choose the right volunteers for such a long-term commitment?
LK: We developed a very rigorous selection process, which can take up to half a year. Our volunteers are sort of para-professional mental health workers, mentors, older friends and substitute parents, all in one. They go through mandatory trainings, have regular supervisions with a psychologist, and participate in other workshops. We’ve just started to collect statistics, but we can already say that most of the volunteers who were selected are maintaining relationships with the children. The minimum commitment from the volunteer is two to three years – ideally, the relationship will last for their lifetime, in one form or another.
Because of what they missed in their early years, some of these young people need more intensive support. The volunteers accept these kids as they are, stand by their side, help them realize the consequences of their decisions, and guide them. Ultimately our goal is that the young people become independent and resilient enough to cope. They can still call their BUDDY, but overall, they are managing on their own.
“Ultimately our goal is that the young people become independent and resilient enough to cope.”
That doesn’t mean they may not lose their job at some point. It doesn’t mean they may not become homeless for a period, but they have enough resilience, and have built a social network that supports them.
CSG: Your model evolved quite a lot over the past dozen years: are you ready to spread the concept further?
LK: Yes, first outside of Bratislava to other cities in Slovakia, and then to cities in Central Europe with a similar social history, like Prague, Budapest, or Zagreb. The length and depth of our intervention and the thorough selection process make BUDDY unique.
We integrate the best of research science and the best of business management. We learned how to do community work, and know what nonprofit work is good at. In partnership with the state, BUDDY could become a model for social innovation in many countries.
Together with her brother Ladislav Kossar, Lucia Kossarova is a co-founder and board member of PROVIDA, a non-profit organization that started and manages the BUDDY program. BUDDY finds, trains, matches and continuously supports caring volunteer mentors for young people in children’s homes in Slovakia, so one day they can lead independent lives. She is one of the ten recipients of the 2018 Klaus J. Jacobs Awards, which are bestowed to social innovators and change makers in the field of child and youth development.