Programme Coordinator at Mentor’s Club – Strengthening Opportunities for Independent Living SOS Children's Villages in Georgia
photo: © 2018 Stefan Lechner Photography
Saving the SOS family legacy. Past, thank you for all the lessons. Dear future, I'm ready!
Does my mother have a job? No, I think she does not… However, how is it that we have a house?
My journey with SOS Children's Villages began in my early childhood, when my twin sister and I were 1 year old. Since then I have been a part of this big family. I was raised in SOS Children's Village Tbilisi and, when I turned 16, I joined another programme, the youth house. Now I am in a semi-independent programme and working as a programme coordinator for a youth project called "Mentor's Club", which helps SOS youth to gain more knowledge and skills for becoming more independent in everyday life, and also helps them to handle the challenges and tasks which are important for success in both their professional and private lives. So this is why my story will be about my childhood and about the job that I have now. First, let me explain how I discovered the SOS Children's Village concept and learned all about my SOS mother. I had an amazing childhood with lots of adventures and friends who I met in SOS and who are my brothers and sisters now, but I did not analyse the fact that there was a world behind the SOS Children's Village. The SOS reality created my first memories of the world, and my SOS mother was the first person who I discovered loved me and protected me. We had a safe environment with all of the resources we needed, whereas the whole region of Georgia lacked resources such as running water or light, there were no jobs and people were really struggling with their lives and with raising kids.
I never thought about SOS Children's Villages as an organisation or something like that: it was my home and this definition was enough for me. I never experienced that I was different in some way until I turned six years old and went to public school. I remember how surprised and confused I was when my classmates told the teacher that the reason they did not have their homework was because the light had gone out in their district, and the teacher was satisfied with this explanation.
My confusion kept growing when I had a lesson about different professions and the teacher asked the whole class about their parents' jobs, about what they did for a living. I just wondered in silence, "OK, Mariami, let's think... does my mum have a job? No, I don't think she has… but how do we have money?" I kept questioning myself and was not able to answer the question. After that, I discovered all about the SOS concept, about my SOS mother and the reasons why my classmates had a different environment and backgrounds. Moreover, I felt so blessed and lucky to have my mum with me, a person who can protect me, who is ready to love me and forgive me.
A simple question can help you find friends.
However, my school was also not aware of what SOS Children's Villages was all about. Due to the Soviet Union background, Georgian people had the wrong idea about children's homes. They viewed us as children who were in trouble with the law and were difficult to raise, and considered us as "bad kids" or "rebel kids" who are not normal. If something got broken in my school or someone got hurt everyone blamed the SOS kids. The parents of other children were not happy that we were their kids' classmates, and the teachers did not expect us to be as talented as other kids. Nevertheless, everything changed with the help of the SOS co-workers' support. They never let the teachers or other parents hurt us, and they absolutely refused to change school, even when the school principal wanted us to leave. SOS mothers and the village director protected us, because we had a right to an education and to socialise. SOS Children's Villages therefore started a new programme - a family strengthening programme. They opened an office in our school and my classmates' parents found out more about the SOS community. SOS helped them with life problems and with their kids. Soon school started to accept us. That is how I managed to get friends from my class. SOS opened a computer lab in our school, which was a big thing then. No one had ever seen a computer before in my class, we did not even have mobile phones or any other technology and now we had a whole classful of computers and another subject to study. So you can imagine many kids waiting when the teacher opened a computer laboratory class in the hall. A group of my classmates were whispering something, and then one of them came up to me and asked me: "Do you know how to turn on a computer?" That was a first step from them. After that class, I invited my classmates to visit the SOS Children's Village and at the end of my last year of school, every classmate said, "We wish we had a chance to grow up in SOS."
Discovering SOS children's power and voice
We had socialised in a school environment, but there is still stigma towards us, and I guess that Mentor's Club is one of the proofs that SOS kids are fighting to raise their voice against it. It all started with a late-night talk with my friends. We were discussing our plans and problems and we ended up with the idea that most of us really lack information and skills in some important fields which cannot be covered by universities and which are important for an independent life. We do not know how to find a job, or how to write a CV or résumé, or how to find out what different professions are about. We lack a lot of communication skills, time and finance management, and how to handle anger. Luckily, at that time a big group from the SOS Children's Villages Germany office came to Tbilisi and we discussed this topic. They advised us to write a project proposal for the Mentor's Club. So we started working on it with a lot of support from the co-workers from SOS Children's Villages Tbilisi. Our efforts bore fruits. We got a positive answer and, last spring, we started the project. I discovered that somehow I became a role model for other SOS children from different programmes: they told me their stories about challenges, frustration and depression or anxiety, things which I had already overcome. I discovered that I understood them better than anyone does and I already had some advice and strategies which could help them. I never expected that I would start being an advocate in both directions: for SOS children and for potential mentors.
I was in a meeting with a mentor negotiating some logistic information when he suddenly asked me if SOS children knew how to read. I got so angry and was wondering whether it would be better to scream at him or to just run away? However, something popped up in my mind. I have been brought up in a peaceful environment, and my mother did not raise me to react angrily, so I started to explain all about SOS Children's Villages to him and what it is like: who we are, what values we have. Surprisingly, that man became a very good friend of the Mentor's Club. So the Mentor's Club is not simply about acquiring information and knowledge, it is also about being proud of your family.
We started with five youngsters and ended up with 72. We even worked with youngsters from SOS Children's Villages in a different city in Georgia. For the first time we had a chance to meet SOS youngsters from Kutaisi. The Mentor's Club is now working on another social enterprise project, selling the handmade items of SOS youngsters.
For me, the moment when I realised that I was doing something important was on the "effective communication course". One SOS girl said that she was always too shy to ask a bus driver to stop the bus at her stop and that is why she always took the bus to the last stop and then walked back. That may sound stupid but I realised her fear of being listened to by someone who is a stranger. She was afraid to be criticised or judged. At the last session her feedback was: "For the first in my life I got off the bus at my stop." She overcame her fear. That was a moment in which I felt we had reached the goal.
So I would like to tell every child or young person in the care of SOS Children's Villages all over the world:
- Do not be ashamed of who you are, do not be ashamed of your family.
- Do not be afraid to make mistakes, as mistakes are the best lessons.
- Take risks, and try hard to be independent.
For all SOS co-workers:
- Do not worry if we make mistakes, we have the strength to get up again, and do not be overprotective towards us. This can lead to laziness, which is the main enemy.
- I know that you worry about what to say to us or what to do. Calm down and do not forget the main formula: we just need you to be close and support us.
is project coordinator at the “Mentor’s Club – Strengthening Opportunities for Independent Living at SOS Children’s Villages Georgia” at Tbilisi, Georgia.
Mari has been working for SOS since 1997. She is a bachelor student in psychology and is very enthusiastic about her first official job at the Mentor’s Club. The Mentor’s Club project was developed entirely by SOS youth to connect young people with experienced professional mentors.
Mari and her twin sister were raised in the SOS Children’s Village in Tbilisi, Georgia. The SOS family really is her family. In SOS, she found many important people, lifelong friends, great teachers, aunts and uncles and her SOS mother whom she loves a great deal.
Mari believes that SOS provides children with more than just food and a place to live, but also kindness, love and a place where you are respected, protected and forgiven.
In her free time, Mari loves reading, music and movies, and watching TedX or reading new surveys. She is currently working on a survey on the correlation of humour and personality traits.
Georgia, its culture, language and alphabet are among the oldest in the world. Georgia has unique and beautiful nature, traditions, history and wine. Most of all, Georgian people love to dance and love guests. They say that the guest is a gift from God...
Video Harvesting Workshop 2018