By Aneta Teneva, Lumos Child Participation Officer, Bulgaria
Veliko’s story did not begin in 2012, but this was the year that a new door opened for him – then a child of 12 in his native town of Varna, Bulgaria. This was the year that he joined a group, along with other children like himself. For the first time, these children began communicating with each other, and examining their own choices and abilities. Before long, they began to discuss children’s rights, and to debate their understanding of the surrounding world.
This new door was a Lumos-supported child participation group for children with intellectual disabilities, from both families and institutions. Over the past four years, monthly meetings of this group have given the children and young people the chance to develop, both individually and as a group. The group has created a community spirit, which motivates its participants and continues to attract more and more children.
To build meaningful child participation, we took the following stepping stones: making sure that the children made their own choices; that they felt safe and supported when sharing their opinion; that they shared a mutual respect for each other; that they were given comprehensive information about all important matters in language they could easily understand; and that they felt that what they were doing was meaningful and beneficial to themselves and to other children.
Once we had found the right path to achieve all of this, the challenges began. We had to navigate from side roads (active group participation, speaking in front of others – at home, school or at regional events) to motorways (presenting at international conferences, sharing opinions about the rights of all children on the world’s stage). With the support of us adults – parents, experts and peers – the group overcame these challenges, and with each challenge the confidence and abilities of the young people grew and grew. As the young people say, we are indeed one big family.
One of Veliko’s challenges was beginning his equestrian journey. At first, he was cautious, but with the support of his friends and peers within the group his confidence grew. A more experienced rider in the group, Mihaela, helped him learn how to handle the horse, and to be in charge of the horse-rider relationship.
Veliko began to change – his self-confidence in public speaking grew, and he learned a lot from his interaction with children from around the world. His enthusiasm inspired his entire school, and attracted new participants to our group. He became a staunch advocate of the rights of the child, always refusing to separate children with disabilities from those without, or children from institutions from those in families, and treating all as equals. He got involved with many new projects, including becoming a member of the Children’s Council at the State Agency for Child Protection, and is now responsible for representing all the children from Varna and the region. All the while, he continued his horse riding lessons, and returned from the Special Olympics in 2015 with two gold medals.
Every day Veliko overcomes a new obstacle, with ever-growing confidence in himself.
Other doors have opened for him too - and he has the full support of his family, his school, his horse riding coach and our group.
They say that it takes a village to raise a child. If this is true, Veliko has a whole village giving him its strength – a village comprised of his parents, his brother, his school, his riding coach, our group, his friends, Lumos, and many others who see how a child born with disabilities is succeeding and moving forward because of the trust which others have invested in him.
Veliko’s opportunities are limitless. He only needs the right support to help him achieve his dreams. In the past few short years, he has already become a role model for many young people around the world – wherever their childhood may be.
If other children with disabilities, or those who have lived in institutions without parental care and attention, could have the same opportunities – and the same doors opened for them – then their destinies too could be so different. They too could demonstrate unexpected abilities, uncover their dreams and discover who they really are.
Opening these doors is not difficult - it merely requires that adults listen to young people. Each person only gets one childhood. Children like Veliko, and all the others in our group, can help adults to support other children with difficult destinies. You can count on them.
Aneta Teneva has been a child participation officer with Lumos for almost five years. Her group meets once a month, and discusses children’s rights, the right of every child with or without disability to participate and to have a say, and mostly how to involve children with intellectual disabilities to share their opinion on an equal footing with the others, and for this opinion to be heard by the adults. Now the group supports peers from small group homes and advocates for their equal rights.