Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Sunday, November 27, 2016

She longed for them all the more - Hans Christian Anderson

Because she could not go near all these wonderful things, she longed for them all the more. - Han Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid

Editor's Note: This is my first post about the humanitarian work that Dionne and I doing here in the Balkans. Hopefully it gives you an appreciation of what we are doing here in this beautiful part of the world. 

The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-Day Saints provides humanitarian aid across the world. Funding for this aid comes directly from member donations. The donation forms have a line item for "humanitarian aid." These monies go directly to the humanitarian budget which are then managed and distributed by local church leaders and volunteer missionaries like myself. There is not a large endowment which makes up the bulk of this fund. Rather, local members across the world make small donations ($5, $10, or $100) entrusting that this money will be used wisely for those in need. Dionne and I are stewards of these funds and we take the responsibility to use these funds "wisely" quite seriously.

This is a tithing form. Note the line item for "Humanitarian aid." I am ashamed to admit that I have never donated to this line item. In fact, I don't think I ever really noticed it before.
The church has sponsored several international major initiatives with a few of these active in Bosnia. Worldwide, we help meet needs like water, sanitation, food, vision care, emergency response, refugee care, immunization, disabled care, and newborn care. Local leaders and senior missionaries are also responsible for finding additional local needs. Dionne and I have a local budget with responsibility for Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. Other senior missionaries are serving in Serbia and Montenegro.

Although our projects have to receive approval from our superiors, Dionne and I have considerable freedom with regards to the types of projects that we propose. Our charter is to look for the "poor and needy." We have also been counseled to be deep and focused vis-a-vis wide and shallow.

So after much prayer and evaluation of the situation within our countries, Dionne and I have decided to target our efforts towards helping people with disabilities.

A primary school classroom at Los Rosales, a partner in Mostar which serves 137 students ranging from ages 3 - 53. 
This was not surprising due to our joint background. Dionne teaches therapeutic horse back riding and has been working with individuals with disabilities for over 10 years now. I, like many people, was always a little "skittish" around people with disabilities. Just hesitant to fully engage. But that changed when so many members of my family were diagnosed with some form of disability or another. So it all started with this beautiful young lady; my niece, Brooklyn.

My sister, Marni, just did a wonderful photo shoot with Brooklyn. 
 I distinctly remember the moment when we found our first partner. We were meeting with a Sarajevo-based NGO, Muslim Aid. They help with the food work that LDS Charities does in Bosnia. We asked about organizations that help people with disabilities and they provided us with a list of 4 organizations that they strongly endorse. The name and description of one of those organizations, Mala Sirena, just grabbed both Dionne and I. We walked out of that meeting with spiritual confirmation that "Little Mermaid" was going to be our first project.

If you've got a tiny little dream, all you have to do is think about it, work on it every day, and you'll get it. - Sebastian 

Mala Sirena ("Little Mermaid") exists because of a motivated mother; Adisa Beganovič-Mahovac. Her son was born with disabilities and she was frustrated because he was facing the prospect of exclusion from a normal life; especially in rural Bosnia. So she did something about it. She started Mala Sirena, an organization that is promoting "inclusion" of those with disabilities. They run a kindergarten, fund personal assistants for children to attend school, run therapy programs, and continue to expand.

Adisa (on the right) in their "sensory integration" room. 
When we first met with Mala Sirena, we asked what their needs were. After we explained that we were not allowed to purchase vehicles (everyone in Bosnia needs a vehicle!), they mentioned an area that had us intrigued. They employ a speech therapist who works with children who have communication difficulties. Some are non-verbal and others have speech difficulties. Both Dionne and I were intrigued when they mentioned this area since we both have some personal experience in the area. Dionne's experience is professional. She has had a number of non-verbal students. She has helped some to verbalize and some have remained non-verbal. So Dionne was familiar with many of the technological advances which have changed so many lives.

I can sum up my familiarity with one word -- Cledi. She is my niece who has cerebral palsy. I remember seeing a video of Cledi "communicating" and it broke my heart. I can only imagine what Gene and Kori must have felt as Cledi became more communicative. So I knew the power of this technology and how it could change both the individuals' life as well as the lives of their families. So Dionne and I were both intrigued.

After our first meeting with Mala Sirena, Dionne immediately went to work. She knew that tablets have proven to be very therapeutic. On the drive home, she began to investigate apps and even downloaded some onto our iPad. She called Kori who talked to therapists in the U.S. We talked to other speech therapists including at the most advanced therapy center that we've seen in country (Banja Luka). Through online research, she learned that a conference on these types of therapy was held in Zagreb, Croatia just the month before so she reached out to some of the presenters. They invited us to Rijeka, Croatia so we spent a day (along with the therapists and the founder's daughter from Mala Sirena) looking at the technology options in language.

Professor demonstrating "eye movement" technology. You can just look at the image and it will select it.
Language is the big issue. There are so many applications available in English and other common languages. But there are much fewer in the local language. Banja Luka, for example, is just using a program that prints out pictures because they had not found anything else that works in Bosonski. But we found that our Northern neighbors, Slovenia and Croatia, are pioneering the use of this technology in language. So we became excited about the prospect of bringing this technology to Bosnia.

My understanding is that only 3 individuals in Bosnia are using the special technology for communication. I have that many using the technology in my family! And only 26 are currently using it in Croatia. The need is there. The therapists and parents are there ready to teach with the technology. The problem is language and cost. The western price tag puts this technology out of reach for both institutions and individuals here.

I need these buttons next time we play "Family Feud"
So we are excited to be able to help bring this technology to Bosnia. To help change the live's of children. Dionne has already begun to download free software onto our iPad. The last time we were at Mara Sirena she was able to demonstrate some of these applications with some of the kids. Although Dionne does not know the language, has never worked with these specific children, several of the kids interacted with her in very positive ways. It was clear that they were able to understand how to use the tablet.

Dionne and Adisa with a young student.
We are planning on taking this project slow. This project is not about simply "buying stuff" for Mala Sirena. Both Dionne and I have technology expertise which we will use to help them learn these new, strange techniques. Our goal is to maximize the $$$ we spend so have the greatest impact on these children.

We will let you know how it goes. Cheers.

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