The Georgian word "bavshvi" means child. Until last year, the most vulnerable of Georgia's children lived in danger of falling through the cracks of a society struggling to shed its Soviet past. When the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the government inherited a system that placed children in need of state assistance in large, one-size-fits-all institutions. Conditions in these institutions were harsh. The buildings were old and unclean, workers were undervalued, and children lived in overcrowded and unattended environments.
For years, Georgian civil society organizations and children's advocates pressured their government to close these relics of the Soviet past and develop a better system. Not only had the whole country suffered decades of oppression, these particular children had known further trauma by losing or being displaced from their families during conflict or being taken from them because of abuse or neglect by family members.
After years of research and planning, the Georgian government, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), decided to adopt a child welfare model similar to one adopted in Poland after the fall of communism. The model calls for a system based on group homes that house a small number of children along with live-in caregivers.
CHF International began rehabilitating conflict-damaged schools in Georgia after the 2008 war with Russia. Following on from this, USAID funded us to implement a program called Bavshvi, focused on repairing schools and old-style orphanages across the country. As the new child welfare model came online during the summer of 2010, our quick-witted and talented CHF Georgia staff moved with adeptness and flexibility to create and implement a new plan based on the new model.
Over the course of 20 months, we were able to renovate 25 small group homes and 50 schools. Once the homes were designed, built, and furnished by CHF, local partners such as SOS Georgia provided trained and dedicated caregivers to staff the homes, and child protection specialists from UNICEF offered overall technical assistance and guidance.
Today, all 25 of the old institutions have been closed and all of the children have been returned to their families or relatives, or are living in brand new small group homes. They will stay in the homes until they are of legal adult age. Each house has eight to 10 children and at least five caregivers. All of the children attend school, which is most often a school recently renovated by CHF. Staff members of the schools are aware of which children come from these homes and work in partnership with their caregivers on their overall welfare. Additionally, the homes are embedded into residential neighborhoods to offer the children a chance to build relationships and interact with the surrounding community, a key element missing in the old system. Skeptical of the new homes and their residents at first, members of these communities have now embraced the children and often pitch in with household needs.
As we completed the program this spring and turned each of the completed houses over to the Georgian Ministry of Health and Education, I was amazed at the difference that can be made in 20 short months. Children who once fell through the cracks of a crumbling system are now receiving dynamic, individualized care from highly trained specialists dedicated to their welfare. The change itself is also evidence of a civil society that has developed the capacity to demand better services and attention from its government for those who need it most, setting the example for the next generation of leaders.
Georgia's efforts to better the lives of its children are to be applauded. For in a region of the world scarred by its past, Georgia's actions on behalf of its most vulnerable citizens have ensured a better, more stable and brighter future.