Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Education is the Key

After finishing our egg covered pizza topped with ketchup in a smoke filled restaurant and walking to our car parked on the sidewalk, we headed to the grocery store, carefully avoiding the stray dogs on the way. Upon arriving at Konzum, we inserted a coin to get a cart and proceeded to fill it with lamb heads and fry sauce. But before we left the store I had to use the squatty potty. Once we arrived home we removed our shoes, put on our papuće and drank a glass of yogurt. Well, that's not exactly how the day went, but it certainly could have been! We love Bosnia and apparently many of you love hearing about our adventures. Denny's blog post last week hit an all time high 1400 views!

While my post this week may not be quite as entertaining, I hope you will enjoy a glimpse into one of our most significant projects. I've written a bit previously about our project to "teach the teachers", so I'm just going to do a quick overview if you missed what it's all about. We have partnered with an organization called EDUS - Education for All and have sponsored the first of two three day workshops filled with training on how to assess current skills, establish individual learning goals and implement a systematic program to achieve maximum success for children with disabilities. The workshops were a huge success and educators and therapist left the workshop full of new ideas, motivated and hopeful. Hopeful of offering higher quality education and therapy to those they work with. Hopeful to make a difference in the lives of the children they love.

She's very focused on getting that star in just
the right place as part of her assessment.

The next phase of this project was to do initial assessments of all the children who will take part in this project. These initial assessments will help us measure the outcomes of this project in the future. All children were given one of two assessments, depending on their cognitive age. Some of the educators/therapists had attended the training and knew how to perform the assessments, while we assisted others who had not attended the training in the execution. It was both a rewarding and an exhausting two weeks as we traveled to 8 different cities, met with 30+ educators and evaluated nearly 80 children. We will then do final assessments on the same children again at the end of the year and compare the skill acquisition of the children who worked with an EDUS trained educator and those whose teachers had not attended the training. Then in January, the second EDUS training workshop will be offered to those who did not attend in August so we will have offered training to all ten centers who are participating in this project.

We were thrilled to see the enthusiasm of the staff of Los Rosales
who attended the EDUS training as they gave an overview
of what they had learned to other staff members.
Every center we visited greeted us with open arms and open hearts. We truly felt welcome everywhere we went. That's not always the case when you walk in and start telling people how to do their jobs. Our first stop was in Mostar at Los Rosales. This is the second project we have done with them and we now consider them family! We love the staff and students alike at this wonderful school. As we walked in we were greeted by Mirna, the director, and Lejla, who we have worked closely with for the past year. They said they wanted to talk to us before we got started. They were very serious and we were concerned that they had decided they did not want to participate in the project. Boy were we wrong! They had been so inspired by the training that they had decided their new goal for next year is to implement it throughout the school with all their educators, not just the four that attended the training. We spent the next two hours watching in amazement as two of the staff that had attended the EDUS training presented the new ideas to a room full of eager educators. Of course, they will need further training for everyone but it was so wonderful to see them so excited and enthusiastic about implementing this new training. They truly feel this will improve the quality of education for their students and make an incredible difference in the long term outcomes and overall quality of life for those they work with.

She was very focused on her Lego tower as her teacher watched.
It was very hard for parents and teachers to just allow the child
to do whatever they could and not jump in and help them!
Our journey continued from Mostar to the rural town of Sanski Most in western Bosnia. Here we worked with a smaller center, not a large school like Los Rosales. These educators had not attended the training and it was our first time doing the assessments. Everyone was very patient as we worked
through the many tasks and finding the right materials for each skill. While I was doing the actual assessment with the teachers and children, Denny was organizing the materials and had them ready as we began each new task. It was definitely a team effort! The hardest part for both the educators and the parents was to remember this was an initial assessment and they could not assist the child or prompt them beyond what was dictated in the assessment guidelines. I even had to gently remind our eager translators not to help a time or two. Everyone wants to see the children succeed, including me, but that was not the goal of the assessments. We just needed to find the children's starting point. But we finished all the assessments, made some new friends and figured out how to be better organized for the next day!

It was so fun to watch the staff at Mala Sirena work with
their students. This little guy thought everything was great fun!
As we visited centers who had completed the training, we were so impressed by how well they had embraced the training. How it all seemed so natural. They really had a good grasp on how to work with the children in their programs using the new techniques they had learned. I also have to offer kudos to EDUS for presenting such an excellent, effective workshop. After several long days of doing the assessments and coaching educators who had not attended the training, it was such a joy to sit back and watch as the  young ladies from Mala Sirena competently and confidently worked through the assessment with each child. They were organized and professional, but the most important thing I observed was their genuine love for the children. Their desire to do more and help these children become more was obvious. This isn't a just a job for them, this is a true act of love. It isn't easy to spend hours upon hours working with children, let alone children with such unique challenges. They have such a great desire to improve their techniques and offer higher quality education and therapy because they know they will change lives for the better.

Picture cards are used for many of the assessment objectives.
In addition to the training project, we also were approved to supply
centers with a variety of materials to use in implementation
of the program, including 1300 picture cards like the ones
he's using in the picture to identify body parts.
The assessments also measured some gross motor skills like
catching, throwing and kicking a ball. It was a nice break from sitting
at the table doing cognitive assessment skills.

Throughout the next two weeks as we visited various centers we found children with a wide range of abilities. We worked with children that thought it was more fun to run around the room screaming and hitting people than to play with toys or do puzzles, children that were excited to meet new people and engage in the activities, others wary of new faces, children that suddenly lost their voices, and those who couldn't stop laughing as we worked our way through each skill on the list.

He was a little worried by strange faces in the room...
can't blame him knowing whose faces they were!

We did assessments on children of various ages between 3-10.
He's verbally identifying pictures here. 

This was one of my favorite parts of the assessments. They were
asked to sing and do movements at the same time.. such as
"If you're happy and you  know it clap your hands" I loved
hearing her voice as she sang several verses with great exuberance. 

 Identifying matching pictures was one of the skills measured.

Here he is doing verbal letter identification. In addition to the
Latin alphabet, we will also be supplying some centers in certain
areas of Bosnia with Cyrillic alphabet cards as well. 

It was very interesting listening to the children identify objects.
Many of them knew their colors, shapes and animals in English
better than they did in Bosnian from watching television!
Instead of "krava" they would just say "cow"! 
And the parents. Parents who want so much for their children to learn and grow, to feel and experience, to dream and reach their greatest potential. Parents who cry at night over their inability to change the way their children are treated in a country that does not always embrace those who are unique. Parents who fight with everything they have to give their children what they need, what they deserve. Parents, like all parents, who love their children unconditionally. I so admire these parents, these caregivers, these educators who never give up hope and continue to build bridges and reach for the stars.
Mom (with red hair) smiling as she watches her son.Her love
for him was so evident as she applauded each accomplished task.

Their is no greater joy than the love of a parent.
As we wrapped up the two week whirlwind tour we felt deep satisfaction in our hearts. We know that God has guided us to projects to help people with disabilities. We know beyond a doubt that this particular project will have an impact long after we have finished our service here.

As a side note, below is a link to an article discussing the ongoing issues of special education in Bosnia. EDUS has done so much for promoting special education and early intervention in Bosnia, yet both EDUS and parents fight a continual battle. It seems that it is a constant game of one step forward, two steps back. This year, the city withdrew some of the support that they had been giving in the past. This is a great tragedy for these children. This article explains what is happening currently in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and the most advanced educational system in the country. It truly is a sad situation and one that is very difficult to understand coming from a country that upholds laws regarding educational rights for all children.  EDUS - Where's my School?

Saturday, September 30, 2017

23 Things Americans Find Wonderfully Strange About Bosnia

One of the joys of traveling is discovering oddly different ways that other people live their lives. If everyone acts the same, why travel to "fabulous and far away places?" I have listed some of the differences that make Bosnia so enjoyable for ex-pats like Dionne and I. Some are things that I wish America had, some are down right awesome, some are just plain weird, and some just make me "go hmmm."

1. Stray Dogs and Puppies Everywhere

We have seen stray dogs in other countries but none as cute and lovable as Bosnia's stray dogs. The first week we arrived I thought Dionne was going to adopt of litter of 5 puppies we found up on the mountain (they could just as easily live on the mountain near our backyard as Jahorina, right?). There are dogs everywhere in Bosnia. Smart dogs who are very adept at obeying traffic laws. Some people feed them, some people ignore them, and some people are mean to them. Most that we have found are friendly and enjoy human attention. 


2. Sidewalks are Just Parking Lots in Disguise

American sidewalks are sanctuaries for the pedestrian. Not so here in Bosnia. Cars park on sidewalks with impunity; walker or biker beware! Which means the streets are shared by walkers, bikers, and cars alike. Because nobody can walk on the actual sidewalk safely. 

If they are serious about cars not parking on a sidewalk, they build impenetrable barriers such as a this one to keep the cars out. 

3. Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette

The first time you sit down at a restaurant your nose will tell you that you are in Bosnia. People smoke everywhere. Restaurants, the office, in the car, nearly anywhere you can imagine. This is so strange to modern-day Americans. I can remember smoking like this when I was a kid but that was 40-years ago. There are precious few "no smoking" sections in restaurants. We went to dinner the other night with the Reese family who had just arrived from Maryland. The kids had never been around smoking and soon were covering their entire faces with their hoodies to try and escape the fumes. 

4. Waste Not, Want Not

Due to their war experience, most Bosnians are obsessive about not wasting anything. (Much like the generation that lived through the American Depression). A friend here told us that there are two types of people he hates: a) those who lie and b) those who waste food. As an unrepentant food waster who has never liked leftovers, I have tried to hide my true nature while here!

This wonderful set of furniture was constructed by the staff as Los Rosales out of wood pallets. Regularly residents go through the garbage cans to salvage anything that they can...and people here do not think anything about it.

5. Old-Fashioned Haystacks

For no other reason than this is how they have always done it, Bosnians collect their hay in old-fashioned haystacks. They dot the landscape and make you feel like it is 1817 instead of 2017. 

6. It's Not Fun Unless It's Burnin'

Bosnians believe that American sport fans lack true passion. There motto: "it's not fun unless it's burning." When you enter a sport stadium you are searched for contraband. Water bottles are a "no-no." But fireworks, flares, and bazookas must be fair game because there always seems to be plenty artillery in the rabid fan section. Who cares who is playing whichever sport...the firework show is a must-see for any American.

7. Disney Reigns Supreme

Precious few American brands have found their way to Bosnia. There are only two McDonald's in the entire country, no Starbucks, maybe 5% iPhone penetration, and few American food brands. Coca-cola, the NBA, and American music are well known. But the Disney brand reigns supreme. Every girl loves Frozen and every boy wants to be Spider-Man and plays with his Lightning McQueen car. Half of the toys are Disney brand or knock-offs. 
Lightning McQueen as painted by our young friend Faris.

8. Landmines

More a novelty than an actual threat anymore, there are a number of unexploded landmines that remain in Bosnia. The locals have a pretty good idea of where they are so everyone just goes about their normal life. It is kind of cool when you come across an actual landmine warning sign. But it doesn't happen that often and you kind of have to drive out of your way to find them. 

9. Burnt-Out Houses and Unfinished Dreams

The first thing that we noticed after we crossed the border into Bosnia was the burnt out buildings. These "war souvenirs" litter the landscape. 
We had originally assumed that these buildings had been bombed. But later learned that most were burnt by either fleeing residents or retreating conquerors. Graffiti artists visit some of the more prominent sites. 
Alongside the destruction are construction projects being built the "Bosnia way." Best I can figure it, this means that you start a project as soon as you get 10% of the funding and then continue to build it slowly (even if it takes a decade or so) until you find the money to finish it. This is the covered barn at Riders of Hope which is still not actually "covered." In true Bosnian fashion, however, I am sure it will happen someday.

10. Baka Wisdom

The Bosnian word "baka" means grandmother. Revered and feared, they have a special place in Bosnian culture. And they are very happy to share their wisdom with anyone who will listen. Examples include:

(Talking to young girls) "If you sit on the grass, you will not be able to have children." "If you don't wear tights, you will be sterile."

"Klima (air conditioning) makes you sick."

Bosnians share memes about their BAKA security forces. Other countries have cameras, Bosnia has a force of watchful bakas to keep everyone in line.

11. Brown Sugar

Dionne discovered that Bosnian brown sugar is different than American brown sugar the first time she tried to bake cookies. Her "go to" cookie recipe produced these unrecognizable lumps. So now whenever we travel to Croatia we return with enough American brown sugar to last for months. 

12. Where are All of the Wild Animals?

Driving around Bosnia Dionne and I have seen many wild animals...but they have all been what we consider domestic animals. Wild dogs, wild cats, and even wild horses. But we have seen very few wild animals. Back home deer wander through our backyard and we hear the howl of coyotes. At the six-month mark Dionne and I both celebrated when we saw our first wild animal; a squirrel. Since we have seen a couple of foxes and a dead hedgehog on the side of the road. That's about it.

13. Green Light, Green Light, Green Light, Green Light

This is one thing that I would really like the U.S. to adopt. Before a traffic light turns yellow, it will blink green four times. This gives the driver a head's up when the light is going to turn red. Brilliant. I am going to miss this.


14. Milk and Yogurt

Bosnians love to drink their yogurt. When an American looks for milk in the grocery store, all they can find is yogurt. Cold drinkable yogurt everywhere. In restaurants they drink it mixed with carbonated water. And sometimes with a little salt added in. I have never been a milk drinker but I have developed a habit of drinking a plain yogurt every morning for breakfast. 

You can find milk but not in the refrigerated section of the grocery story. Most milk is boxed. There is fresh milk but it is more expensive and harder to find. 

15. Crazy Shopping Carts

The shopping carts are chained up and require a coin to unlock them. It took us a while to figure this system out. It is a little bit of a pain when you don't have a mark in your pocket. Somebody showed us a cheat you can do with your house key, however.

I have inserted a mark into this cart so we are free to go. When you return it and lock it back up, the mark pops out. But the coolest thing about these carts is how they roll. All of the wheels roll freely (unlike in the U.S. where the back two wheels only roll forward). As the video demonstrates, the carts seem to have a mind of their own when pushed.

16. Papuče

Bosnians obsess over wearing papuče (slippers) when indoors. Obsess over it! We were looking to rent an apartment for the Elders and I had just put my shoes back on to leave. But then I had a thought to get something out of the adjoining room WITH MY SHOES ON! The landlord literally freaked out that I would walk across the room with my shoes on. I almost thought that she would not rent us the room due to my indiscretion. She made us promise that this would never happen again, had us write up a list of house rules (the most prominent of which was TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF), and post it on the door. Bosnians takes this very seriously indeed.

But it is bearable because of the cool papuče. We will bring several things home from Bosnia including 3-4 pairs of papuče; we have become converts.

17. Queen Sized Bed with Two Blankets

This drives us crazy. Hotels with queen or king sized beds do not have a single comforter. Instead they have two individual sized blankets on the bed. 

18. Janjetina (Lamb)

I was excited when I was looking in the kitchen at Los Rosales this past week...we absolutely love the ice cream here in Bosnia.

But as I opened up the freezer, this is what I found. Bosnians love their lamb...sort of. We originally thought that lamb meat was found in many of the dishes like ćevapi which we enjoy here. Bosnians love lamb but generally only cooked in certain ways. They like to spit roast their lamb...and rarely serve it any other way. In the mountains there many restaurants that specialize in this type of lamb preparation (see video). But we hardly ever find lamb on the menu in city restaurants. 

19. Fresh Water On Tap

This may be more of a Muslim thing than a Bosnian thing...not sure. But they love to drink water from fresh water taps. These are found in the mountains, in the city, near mosques, in Bašćaršija, and along the side of the road. Bosnians fill up their water bottles from these spouts. Or they just take a drink. One of the skills that we are assessing children on is "ability to drink from a water fountain." We were not sure what this meant since we have not seen a single water fountain here. The educator told us that is means being able to drink from one of these water spouts. The skill is so important here that they teach is alongside potty training and shoelace tying.

20. Unbelievably Narrow Roads

Seeing is believing.

21. Two Christmases

A strange as it seems, Bosnians celebrate Christmas on two different days. Catholics celebrate Dec 25th and Pravoslav (Orthodox) celebrate Jan 7th. Mormons are agnostic on this question. In Sarajevo we celebrate Dec 25th. In Banja Luka we celebrate on Jan 7th. And Muslims obviously do not celebrate Christmas but make a big deal about New Year. So the holiday season here lasts for a whole month!

Sitting with our friends Zoran and Ranka who have Serbian backgrounds...I love talking with Zoran but will never bring up the "when is Christmas" question ever again!

22. "Congratulations San Francisco, You've Ruined Pizza!" (line from Inside Out)

Full disclosure. I absolutely adore Bosnian food. Some of the best anywhere in the world. But not their pizza. And to make matters worse, they have this crazy habit of dousing it with ketchup. Be still my heart. 

One of the first pizzas I tried here. Was not a fan of the boiled eggs on my pizza. And I have not gotten the courage up to try the "tuna" pizza which I find on every single menu. (Thank goodness that Pizza Company is only 5 minutes from our house...the best that we have found here)

23. Squat Toilets

Typically found in public restrooms like schools, gas stations, or rural restaurants, there are too many squat toilets in Bosnia for my comfort. We replaced many of these as part of our humanitarian school work. (The video is of me flushing one of them to see what happens) Avoidance seems to be the best strategy. The one time I had no choice, however, did not turn out well. 

And Then There is the Oddly Familiar

Imagine our surprise when we found fry sauce in the grocery store. Now that is weird!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Joy of Service

Like the warm summer days and lingering scent of Sarajevo roses, September will soon be but a mere memory, wonderful memories, but memories nonetheless. I'm not sure how to slow the ticking of the clock. So much to do and so little time! Life has been a flurry of activities this month as we approach the final months of our humanitarian work. Since my last post we have traveled over 4,000 kilometers, made stops in ten different cities, slept in a hotel bed for nine nights and met over 50 new people that we can now call our friends! I'll go into details about all those visits on my next blog post because we still have another week full of visits coming up. This week I want to share one of my favorite projects we've done on the mission. The first all Bosnia Zone service project.

Several months ago we had a project approved to do some roof repair and renovations at one of our favorite centers for children with disabilities, Mala Sirena. This was not our typical project. This was truly a project of service, not material goods. The gathering of all 10 young missionaries, plus several church members and friends in Zavidovici entailed a bit of coordination, but it was so worth the effort! The project provided funding to do some much needed roof  and entry repairs and the paint for interior renovations, but the greatest contribution was the labor provided by our eager group.

This is the roof of the center before repairs were made...
(note, professionals did the roof repairs, not us!)
As you can see this entry way was in desperate need of repair as well.

This is the hallway before our little beautification project... it
had been damaged by the leaking roof and was well...
just a little drab and boring.
 Adisa, the center director, wanted one hallway for the children that was fun and colorful. For the other hallway, she wanted something peaceful and relaxing for the parents while they wait for their children. I chose bright primary colors for the children's hall and a soft sky blue color for the parent's hall. While I was the mastermind behind the idea for the children's hall, Sisters Orchard and Russell executed the design. I showed them my idea (stolen from Pinterest of course!) and handed them the tape. Their design was beyond amazing! Once the taping was done, everyone grabbed paint and brushes and began the arduous process of bringing the masterpiece to life!
Sister Orchard strategically planning the wall design and
consulting with her design partner, Sister Russell who
was standing on the stairs out of the camera range. 

Each person worked on their own little geometric shape with
with a different color, which was carefully orchestrated so no
touching shapes were the same color. It was quite a task!

Jasmin, a member from Tuzla, was a great help! Elder Hole
was very precise in his painting techniques around the corner. 

Dubravko, a member from Banja Luka, was enthusiastic as he
and the missionaries mastered the art of painting in the lines. 

Sretan, a member from Tuzla, was the project supervisor.
Here he's making sure Elder Shaw stays in the lines!

Let's just say it was all hands on deck for this project!

I like the way she works... 
Not quite finished, but the results of their fabulous design and
taping skills is quite evident on this colorful wall!

In the meantime, Sisters Marinkovic and Zemenchik were in charge of the design of the exterior entryway. Once again, I was impressed by the creative talent and execution as they created a mural of circles and rings that fulfilled the dreams of Adisa, the center director. Drawing and painting circles above your head while standing on a ladder requires a particular talent! Fortunately, we have very talented missionaries in Bosnia. We also have some steady hands that deftly transformed every spherical shape into a work of art.

First they had to draw out their circle design with fancy the inside of a spring form pan! Sister Zemenchik
mastered the tracing above her head technique quickly. 

Faketa, a member of the church from Tuzla, put the fine details
on the circles, making sure all the edges were sharp. 

Sister Zemenchik and Faketa in deep discussion about color choices. 

Sister Marinkovic is quite skilled at painting circles above
her head while standing on a ladder... 

Faketa's husband, Zoran, came along and proved to be quite adept
at creating the perfect circle! His attention to detail was impeccable!

Look at that technique!

Elder Hole taking a turn at painting circles....with supervision from
Sister Marinkovic of course! 

It's a party...

Everyone buzzed from place to place adding their personal touches to each and every wall. With the help of a broom, a couple of elders mastered the art of painting up high while keeping their feet on the floor as they worked on the parent's hallway. The walls were extremely textured and the paint was pretty thick so the painting was very slow. After we were almost finished, we learned that in Bosnia you're supposed to add water to the paint...if only we had known when we started we could have saved a few hours!

Sister Russell and Sister Orchard worked on the parent's wall
too while Denny went to get more tape for the other hallway. 
This is how it's done in Bosnia!
Elders Leach, Snell and Roberts (supervised by Sretan, a member from Tuzla) were delegated to putting shingles on the roof of a picnic shelter. They were handed a pile of shingles, one hammer, one Exacto knife and a box of nails and turned loose to conquer the task. Apparently Elder Leach has some experience roofing, or else he's just a natural at it, because he managed to shingle the roof like a pro with help from his work crew.

Measure twice, cut once! Elders Leach and Snell preparing the shingles.

Elder Roberts making sure the first shingles are nice and straight.

Good thing Elder Leach is flexible! Looks like rooftop yoga to me!

Team work makes everything better!

Sretan making sure everything is done correctly. 

The finished project! Nicely done, elders!

As the scent of fresh paint mingled with the peal of laughter, I found myself marveling at the abundance of love and joy that were present. This project was a huge success, bringing together church members and non-members in the service of others. We brightened the center's entry and hallways but more importantly, we brightened lives. Ours included.

Adisa, on the far left was so thankful for the
service to help fulfill her vision!

Our awesome work crew! I'm not sure how I managed to
be the one covered in the most paint....

Although most of it was complete, there were a few things that needed to be finished up so Denny and I went back two days later to make sure everything was done. Mostly what was left was the high spots over the stairs that we couldn't reach with the ladder. It took a bit of creativity, but Denny figured out a way to set up a "platform" to paint from so he could reach the top. Not sure it would pass any safety inspections, but he got the job done unharmed! I worked on the low spots in a short hallway that we didn't get to previously and did a bit of "decorative" stenciling. While we were finishing up our work they had a volunteer come to help us. Little did we know, she's an actual artist! She created the mural that Adisa had shown me pictures of using spray paint and smudging! Much better than anything I could have done.
Denny found a "sturdy" beam outside and created this super
safe platform to paint up high over the stairs. 

So... the project wasn't without incident. Denny was trying to paint
behind this big cabinet and somehow managed to tip it over. We were really
glad it was just us there that day. Pretty sure it would have
sent someone to the hospital if it happened a few days before!

The lazy way to paint down low... my knees just don't bend like they used to!

Adding a little decorative stencil to the parent's hallway. 

Now this is a true artist at work!

This picture doesn't really do this beautiful mural justice. It truly
was amazing to watch her work and see the finished project. 

Even more so than our project, Mala Sirena is truly a labor of love. Those who are part of this special program, both on the giving and the receiving end, bless each other in unimaginable ways. The unconditional love for all who enter through the doors creates a bond that is evident the moment you enter the center. After our work was complete, volunteers from Mala Sirena caught the vision and added the final touches to create a warm and welcoming space for all who enter. This is one memory that will always hold a special place in my heart.

and after!