With eager anticipation, Juulia Jurvanen makes her way up the concrete steps to Marsa Gatve, the crisis center for street children where she volunteers in Riga. As soon as Jurvanen walks through the door, a little girl in pig-tails runs to greet her, waving both hands in the air in a frenzy of excitement.
The youngster's smile is instantly infectious. Stooping down on one knee to meet her size, Jurvanen asks the little girl about her week and the latest photo project they've been working on. A jumble of English, Latvian and laughter spills out of the 5-year-old's mouth before she skips away into the kitchen. Minutes later, Jurvanen tells me that the girl's mother abuses her.
In 2001, 1,077 individuals were arrested for crimes against minors in Latvia.. And in the following year, 14,366 children did not attend school. These staggering numbers put Latvia's need for social workers into clear perspective and were incentive enough for Helsinki Polytechnic student Jurvanen and fellow Miia Stahlberg, both pursuing degrees in Social Services, to spend three months volunteering in Riga's crisis centers.
Both students applied to the Attistiba Higher School for Social Work, which is connected to the international Socrates/Erasmus program. The program arranged for Jurvanen to volunteer at Marsa Gatve and Stahlberg with Dardedze Center Against Abuse, which provides assistance and therapy to children who have suffered from abuse. Both women are spending three months mentoring, motivating and befriending abused or runaway children and teenagers.
"It's nothing special," said Jurvanen. "It's just being there for the kids, listening to them, trying to show them respect and motivate them."
Jurvanen, who works with kids ranging from age five to sixteen, says she was surprised by how positive the children were, considering what they have been through. Most of the children at Marsa Gatve are runaways or neglected. They are typically brought in by police or social workers. Some teenagers find the center themselves.
Once children are signed in, they cannot leave until social workers look over their situation. After this, they are usually free to come go as they want. Depending on the case, most are allowed to visit their parents. Some children leave the center to attend school. However, according to Jurvanen, there have been problems with these students skipping class and ending up back on the streets.
In addition to the center's full time social workers, psychotherapists and nurse, part time workers like Jurvanen meet with the kids almost every day. Most of her work revolves around organizing art projects and activities in an effort to motivate the children.
The last project Jurvanen worked on with the kids was a photo collage of pictures from the center. The children were so excited about the photos that some of them ripped the pictures off the collage to keep. According to Jurvanen, it's rare for these kids to get much personal attention outside of the center. This is why they photo project was such a great success. Jurvanen made doubles of all the photographs so that each child could have his or her own.
"The hardest part is getting them engaged," Jurvanen said. "They have so many skills that they don't even know about. We've cooked pizza, done art projects, played sports and learned dances - the boys are really good at break dancing."
This is the first time that Jurvanen has worked in a crisis center. Reflecting on her experience at Marsa Gatve, Jurvanen says she could easily go into this area of work back in Finland.
"It's been the best experience for me," she said. "I've learned more in the three months here than all my time at home."
It was more difficult for Stahlberg to put her experience at Dardedze to words. Having never worked in a center for abused children before, this has been a completely new experience for her.
"I've got a wider perspective about these kind of things," Stahlberg said. "I hope to be working on art therapy with the kids."
Like Jurvanen, the most that Stahlberg can do for these kids is talk to them, play with them, involve them in various activities and be there for them.
"It's unbelievable. They're really not hard to talk to," Stahlberg said. "Of course, they have short attention spans and some of them become aggressive at very small things, but mostly they are very positive and the atmosphere is very positive."
Stahlberg believes that Dardedze meets European Standards. The resources are sufficient and the children are offered good therapy. But Latvia cannot compare to Finland, where social welfare is a governmental priority. It was only in 1998 that Latvia enforced the child protection law and even today, police and prosecutors do not perceive it as a prominent issue.
"There needs to be earlier intervention and help at a lower level like in Finland," Jurvanen said. "It's only when the problem gets too serious that the children are brought to the center"
Stahlberg agrees that Latvia needs the early intervention practice that Finland has. Latvia differs from Finland politically because it's a more liberalistic country, she said. In terms of social work, this is the root of the problem.
"Here in Latvia, the implementation of social welfare laws is in the process," Jurvanen said. "Sure there's motivation from social workers, but if there's no political will not much can be accomplished."
For more information on Marsa Gatve and Dardedze contact:
Marsa Gatve: 7802731