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Setting out to merely “create awareness,” two teens instead create unity in their community and save its kindergarten—all thanks to a single video

The bricks are falling out of walls. The roof is collapsing. The outhouse will make a weak bladder gain strength. The school, in a word, is unfit for the 15 children who come here each day. “Here,” is Ude #2 kindergarten in the Samtskhe-Javakheti community in the southern part of Georgia, near the borders of Turkey and Armenia. Although the kids are young, between three and five years of age, they’re well aware their school is dangerous.

Ude #2 before its renovation.
Ude #2 before its renovation. Courtesy World Vision Samtskhe-Javakheti staff.

The parents who send their children to Ude #2 are reluctant, but they have no other options. The kindergarten—in Canada, we’d call it a preschool—has been in the town for 48 years. The teachers and school manager do their best to protect the children from the traps set by time and failing construction. In the winter, better to wear more than one layer (consider four, just to be safe). How many more of these cold, snowy seasons will Ude #2 withstand in its current state? There are also rumours that the municipal government will close the school permanently; the government knows Ude #2 is unsafe. But shutting it isn’t a solution. Without Ude #2, parents will have to quit jobs in order to care for their children. And those children will miss out on the benefits of a preschool. The community needs another way that doesn’t give up on the school.

Inside Ude #2 before its renovation.
Inside Ude #2 before its renovation. Courtesy World Vision Samtskhe-Javakheti staff.

Two teens try another way. They decide to make a video about the school with a modest goal: “create awareness” that Ude #2 needs to be fixed now. But who will listen? You’d be surprised. The video is screened in different boardrooms, momentum builds and people who are able to write cheques are swayed—they get their pens out.

Compare and contrast: A photograph of Ude #2 before renovation is held up against Ude #2 today.
Compare and contrast: A photograph of Ude #2 before renovation is held up against Ude #2 today.

The bricks stopped falling
In December last year, I visit Ude #2, three months after it reopened following its renovation. Yes, a renovation inspired by that very video, created by two teens who hadn’t given up on the school. I’m dressed for Georgia’s winter. Fresh snow from the night before covers the field out front of the kindergarten. When I step inside the school, I don’t see my breath anymore. I’m now under a roof—one that’s stopped being a threat. I can also hear kids’ voices, drawing my group toward a classroom door. Then their welcome gets warmer as the children sing us hello.

Children sing to welcome visitors to their classroom.
Children sing to welcome visitors to their classroom.

Human walls
Natia, a mother of three, is the manager and a teacher at Ude #2. In a way, the school is part of her family. Natia’s mother-in-law was the manager of the school for 40 years, before retiring and convincing her daughter-in-law to take her spot six years ago. Natia’s six-year-old son, Mate, was a student at Ude #2 until the end of the last school year. Natia feared for a catastrophe at the school, but struggled to gain the support of the government to fix the building. “Safety was the biggest issue,” Natia tells me. “When kids would play, we made a ‘live wall’ of teachers to protect the children from the real wall in case any bricks fell from it.”

Natia, the manager and a teacher at Ude #2, and her six-year-old son, Mate.
Natia, the manager and a teacher at Ude #2, and her six-year-old son, Mate.

Yes, alongside other teachers, Natia literally put her body on the line. She also made a yearly appeal to the municipal government to help fund the school’s renovation. The government listened, but didn’t act. It gives about US$13 per child for meals, maintenance and supplies each month. Nowhere near the $64,000 that was needed to fix the school. From time to time, a church would hold a fundraiser to raise money for small cosmetic changes at the school. But the school remained hazardous.

A look at the Samtskhe-Javakheti community in numbers.

I ask Natia why she continued to work under these conditions. “As a mom, I was so worried. Not only for my kid, but every kid,” she says. “It was really tough. It was really tense. I handled it because of my love of children. They are my passion.”

Natia was disheartened that she couldn’t convince the government that her passion needed protection with a safe school. She gained hope in 2011, when World Vision provided new school furniture. Natia calls that the first miracle. She wanted—needed—another. “Although we had so many disappointments, we always had a light of hope in our heart. I cannot explain it,” Natia tells me. “There was always hope. I don’t know where it came from.”

Two teens with a camera
The video was good. Too good. “People doubted we made it,” says 17-year-old Khatia.

“It was too professional,” adds 18-year-old Tornike, who created the video with Khatia.

From left: Khatia and Tornike.
From left: Khatia and Tornike.

I meet the duo at Ude #2, the building that still stood because of their four-minute video, which they screen for me that morning. It is professional—and persuasive.

Three years ago, Tornike started a youth group, where he acts as a peer educator. World Vision supports the group of 20 members, which includes Khatia. One of the reasons World Vision works with youths in the S-J community (I was told to use “S-J” for short—Samtskhe-Javakheti wasn’t rolling off my tongue) is the lack of afterschool programs.

As with every World Vision effort, the youth program’s ultimate goal is self-sufficiency. When it comes to peer education, World Vision trains Tornike and he teaches his youth group. An offshoot of advocacy training his group received included learning how to film and edit videos—perfect for a cinephile like Tornike and a budding actress like Khatia.

After their training, World Vision staff asked the duo to create an advocacy video on an issue that was important to them. Khatia had attended Ude #2 back when Natia’s mother-in-law was the manager. Even then, the school wasn’t a fun place to hang around. Khatia remembered that the favourite game was playing with mud and sticks. Ude #2 had only gotten worse.

“We thought the school was the biggest issue for the community,” Tornike tells me.

With that in mind, they set out one day last spring to interview Natia and parents, and film plenty of b-roll that showed why Ude #2 deserved a failing grade. After two weeks of editing with World Vision staff, the video was ready to be screened.

Issuing a “correction”
Arsen Balakhashvili is the municipality’s acting governor. He has a gruff look that contrasts with his welcoming smile and laugh. At the time the government decided to help fund the renovation of Ude #2, Balakhashvili was the deputy governor. When I ask him what prompted the government’s decision, he tells me that it wasn’t because of a change of heart. “We knew for several years safety was a problem,” he says. “Although we wanted to, we couldn’t solve this problem by ourselves.” The government needed partners.

Arsen Balakhashvili, Samtskhe-Javakheti’s’s acting governor.
Arsen Balakhashvili, Samtskhe-Javakheti’s’s acting governor.

Tornike and Khatia’s video encouraged others to become partners. When the teens showed the video to members of the municipal government, and the governor learned that other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would contribute to the renovation, Balakhashvili’s former boss issued a “correction” to the budget, earmarking $13,000 to be used to renovate Ude #2.

“Development of the country starts at the local level,” Balakhashvili tells me. His municipality is known for its potatoes, beekeeping and milk processing. It faces many challenges aside from unsafe kindergartens. It lacks basic infrastructure, including irrigation and paved roads. Deciding what problems to address is complicated. The teens’ video helped. “It’s really important for the community to see that youth were so involved with these changes,” Balakhashvili says.

Another before-and-after comparison of Ude #2.
Another before-and-after comparison of Ude #2.

The successful renovation of Ude #2 has also convinced the municipality to reconsider its next budget to include funding for renovations at other kindergartens and projects World Vision is a partner in. Balakhashvili says World Vision has made an important contribution to the community.

In dollars, World Vision’s contribution to Ude #2’s renovation was $35,000. But it wasn’t the only NGO that helped. The other partners included Save the Children ($7,300) and the Mercy Corps ($9,000).

Preschool math side-bar.

Kakha Gordadze, World Vision program manager of the S-J community, says the renovation project at Ude #2 was unique because it brought together a number of organizations whose projects in the community are diverse. But the video convinced everyone that something needed to be done at the kindergarten.

Kids smile and laugh at Ude #2.
Kids smile and laugh at Ude #2.

26 smiles
The experience of walking into Ude #2 is like walking into a preschool that Canadians would hope to send their children to. The walls and furniture are colourful. The school is clean and bright. When I stepped into the classroom, I counted the smiles of students present that day—26. After Ude #2 reopened, the kindergarten gained students and other admirers. The school became the talk of the community.

Speaking of the reopening, Balakhashvili was here on that day last October. “I remember the moment we opened the doors,” he tells me. “I felt the kids were seeing a different universe.”

During my visit, I speak with a parent, Maka, whose five-year-old son, Giorgi, attends the school. Maka tells me Giorgi’s health has improved since he doesn’t have to use the outhouse (the renovation included installing washrooms inside the building). She also says that Giorgi is now eager to go to school each day. “He is happy to come,” she says. “It is not us who are saying he should go.”

Children enjoy a mid-morning snack at Ude #2.
Children enjoy a mid-morning snack at Ude #2.

After my survey of the kindergarten, I realize I disagree with Balakhashvili: The new Ude #2 is not from a different universe. It’s from this one. It’s what happens when people come together for a common goal to do what they know is right. “Such great projects are only possible if many people unite,” Maka tells me. And it’s what happens when you find another way, just as two teens had done. They have the video to prove it.


This article was published on March 28, 2014.




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