“I found them last summer, looking through the trash for food,” Gesti, pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Kombinat, Albania, told me in October 2015 as we were on our way to visit the child development centre (CDC) that his congregation had established. “Two sisters and a brother; the oldest was 12 at the time, and none of them had ever been to school. They live in a single room about half an hour's walk from the church. Their mother is a prostitute and takes her clients home, so during the day the kids go around and look through the trash, trying to find things to eat.”
When we arrived at the CDC – taking place in a small rented room with large, faded Disney pictures on the outside wall – the kids were all diligently doing their homework. Gesti introduced me, and the children immediately welcomed me.
Several came up and hugged me, among them the two sisters. Their hugs were long and fierce, revealing how desperately they longed for affection, but also suggesting: I can see that you're different, that you care for me; I feel loved in this place.
And that is not something the children here can take for granted. Not just the three siblings, but all of the children who attend the CDC come from broken families. Their parents are unemployed. Many are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Several of the families live in a complex of abandoned factories. The children suffer from poverty, neglect and abuse. Some parents simply don’t care what happens to their kids. All of the families, several of whom are Roma or locally labelled as “gypsies,” are marginalized by society: the sort of people that nobody bothers about, that aren't even really noticed.
In the Nazarene child development centre, these children have discovered a new world. Established in September 2014, the CDC has become a haven of peace in their troubled lives. Due to their home situations, most of them would have no chance to succeed in school – or even bother to go. The CDC is giving them a future as well as a present that’s worth living.
“I like to come to the CDC because I feel loved here,” Lydia*, the elder of the two sisters, said.
For two hours each weekday morning or early afternoon, the children receive homework help and assistance with their school lessons; the teachers explain with much patience and individual attention, especially for children who are slower learners. Since many families cannot afford to pay for school materials or textbooks, the CDC provides these where necessary. Hygiene and other topics of everyday life are addressed in a respectful, loving manner.
“I want to keep coming to the CDC because I want to learn more,” Elena*, the younger sister, explained.
But the CDC isn’t all work – it’s also fun. Lessons are rounded off with games and creative tasks. Trips to parks and picnics are major highlights in the summer. Each child's birthday is celebrated with a cake and a song, and special programs are offered for Christmas and during the summer holidays. Bible stories and prayer are a part of the daily schedule. At noon, all of the children gather for a healthy lunch, usually soup, vegetables and fruit. For several children, it’s the only real meal of the day.
It is wonderful to witness what a major difference the CDC has made in the lives of these children in a short time. After only half a year of classes, Gesti was able to report: “These are kids that will never get good grades and will fail in school, but last week I asked if they got good grades and three kids said they got the best grade – kids that before couldn’t even read!”
The children have improved so considerably in their academic work, that their schools are very pleased with their progress and are asking Gesti to let more of their kids join the CDC. From initially 19 kids, the number has already increased to 37, and a lot more are on the waiting list.
But it’s not just academic success that the CDC leadership is grateful for. The CDC has also made a big difference in the children’s behaviour and self-esteem.
“We have seen these kids changing a lot,” says Vera, a young lady from the church who worked as teacher in the CDC until last summer when she gave birth to her first child. “From kids that didn’t have any friends, from kids that didn’t want to speak to anyone, they started making new friends. They started participating even in other events, doing everything like the other children were doing; they didn't have any difference from any other kids because now they know that they are important as any other kids.”
This is probably the most significant difference the CDC has made: showing the children that they are valuable, that they are loved and accepted.
“On the first day, I went to all the kids asking for their names, and all of them since that day have become a part of my life,” Vera said. “They became so beloved for me. God filled me with love for them.”
And the children generously share love in return. When Vera recently visited the CDC with her baby, the moment she appeared in the doorway all the kids jumped up and cheered, ran up to her laughing and hugging and kissing her, shouting “Vera, Vera!”
The children are also responding to God’s love. At lunchtime in the CDC, they listen attentively to the Bible stories and participate eagerly. One day, Vera asked if one of the children would pray for the food. A 5-year-old boy prayed a very sincere prayer, and the other children followed his example – now, before the food is served, each child says a prayer of thanksgiving or intercession.
“The kids have become so close with each other that they share prayer requests with each other,” Vera said.
Most of the children are now regularly attending the kids club at church. The whole Kombinat church has been very supportive of the CDC from the beginning – it is truly a ministry owned by the local church. Not only do they pay for utilities and food out of their monthly tithes – for a small, not very affluent church in Albania this is a significant amount – they also invest a lot of time and energy in the children. About 10 people are helping on a regular basis, most of them as volunteers. In the weekly prayer meetings, most attendees pray for the CDC, expressing their excitement that “nothing like this program has ever happened in this church or in Kombinat or even in the whole of Tirana.”
In January 2017, I have another chance to visit “my” CDC in Albania and the children I have grown to love. The faded Disney pictures shine just as brightly in the sun, and the children's faces shine just as brightly inside the CDC, bent over their homework and bundled up in coats and scarves. Most of the children remember me, and I am proud to remember all of their names. Lydia and Elena, the two sisters, immediately wave me over and ask me to sit between them. I listen as Lydia reads poems from her textbook.
Suddenly she starts rummaging in her bag, pulls out a small card which says “40 days of prayer” in Albanian and starts reading the verse that is printed on the card: “Sepse Perëndia e deshi aq botën ...” It is John 3:16, and her face is shining as she reads it out loud, much more fluently than the poetry in her book. Her sister, who has been listening, asks to borrow the card, portions off a part on the side of her paper and copies John 3:16 on it in nice handwriting, then writes “God bless you” above it. When Elena returns the card to her sister, Lydia takes it carefully, then she holds the card to her heart, kisses it, looks at me with radiant eyes.
“Now they know they are important as any other kids,” Vera said. “Now they know that they are loved by God as any other kids.”
*Names changed for privacy