Cherish Our Children International (COCI) has been working in Serbia since 2000 when war, a tyrannical dictator and ethnic strife tore the country apart. Our work in Serbia started with the development of a Children’s Resource Center which provided on-site and outreach services to thousands of children in the community that were impacted by the armed conflict. Many of these children had been forced from their homes and communities, and they were often separated from their families.

Working in partnership with Her Royal Highness, Princess Elizabeth of Serbia, COCI raised funds to provide interdisciplinary services to these children and their families, and to provide urgent humanitarian aid to facilities housing children.

Since then, COCI has partnered with the U.S. Embassy in Serbia earning two USAID grants and one large grant which allowed the complete renovation of Belgrade’s largest orphanage. De-institutionalization projects in the orphanages provided personalized academic tutoring, health and hygiene counseling, cognitive workshops and recreational activities.

Focusing now on handicapped children in order to provide access to services that would otherwise be unavailable to them, COCI vehicles are providing beneficiaries with in-home education for shut-ins, delivery of wheelchairs and living essentials, and access for families to social services such as medical appointments and delivery to special clinics and schools. Transportation services also allow for an organized special needs sports program and a large, yearly cultural fair where challenged kids perform and earn prizes.

A partnership with one Serbian dentist has also added a program delivering dental care and hygiene education to hundreds of COCI beneficiaries, both within a modern clinic and also to children in remote areas through the donation of a portable dental unit. A new initiative partnering with the U.S. Embassy is aimed at building a day care center for special needs children which would allow parents to go to work while knowing their kids are safe and cared for.

In Serbia, through the Community Care Sopot program, thousands of refugees, handicapped and institutionalized children have been given excellent opportunities for health and happiness with a connection to the resources necessary for reaching their full potential.

COCI is empowering these children and their caregivers, giving them hope where there was none. At the same time, the likelihood that these children could become involved in criminal activity, drugs, and human trafficking (all very real possibilities in this environment) is drastically diminished.

In Serbia COCI provides the following:

  1. Transportation services for thousands yearly to access healthcare, education, recreation and outreach.
  2. Integration for special needs and differently-abled children into mainstream society.
  3. Resources to prevent abandonment and/or systematic institutionalization of developmentally challenged children.
  4. Dental care to hundreds of special needs children.
  5. Professional vocational training to the developmentally challenged.
  6. Public awareness initiatives regarding the treatment of special needs children.
  7. COCI partnerships with Minister of Health and Social Welfare and nearly 100 social and medical institutions, private dental professionals and the U.S. Embassy.

The Director of our Advocacy Program is the father of a 22 year old autistic son and has brought an understanding to the lack of social assistance or awareness of special needs children that is endemic in the post-communist societies. His relationship with hundreds of families in similar situations has allowed him to convince families not to abandon their children, and to offer them the assistance and training they need to keep their families intact.

Our partnership with nearly 100 institutions, the country’s Minister of Health and Social Welfare, and the U.S. Embassy have helped COCI reach deep into mainstream society. After eleven years of work, we are now seeing many children who were beneficiaries of COCI’s mission wishing to help others who are in the same situation that they once were.

COMMUNITY ADVOCACY FOR SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN is solely funded by COCI, but the need for these services is significantly greater than what COCI is able to provide with only one vehicle, leaving many children who are still in need of immediate medical attention and other social services without recourse. COCI intends to expand this program when funding permits to bring in a second vehicle and qualified driver, and to also build a day care center so that parents can hold jobs while caring for their children and hopefully abandonment can be curtailed.

My First Job

COCI Serbia initiated a new project called MY FIRST JOB. Our special educator provides training to special needs individuals to prepare them to apply for regular jobs. This project is run in cooperation with various employers that are ready to employ special needs individuals. The training is well targeted and planned in accordance with specific needs. Training usually lasts about three months.

Our first girl to find a job is Slavica. She is now regularly employed at McDonald’s as an assistant worker. McDonald’s has very strict criteria and Slavica’s training was neither simple nor easy. In addition to the challenge of intensive training, Slavica confronted the problem of separation from her family. She was driven on daily basis from Sopot to Belgrade until we found out that Slavica became more and more tired of traveling.

A solution was created by Slavica’s relatives who live in Belgrade and offered to let her stay with them during working days. On the weekends Slavica is more than happy to go to Sopot to see her family. This story is a small glimpse of how COCI creates brighter futures for some of the world’s most vulnerable children. Less than 10 years ago, someone like Slavica would have been destined to a life of institutionalization. Amazingly, she is now living a full life and making her own unique contribution. Way to go Slavica! We are proud of you.