By Mr. Justin Matthew Ward (USACE)December 10, 2009
VARVARIN, Serbia -- By Western standards, the $444,000 special-needs community center may seem pretty ordinary. But to the local community - and especially the children who go to the center - it is anything but.
"Facilities like this are why I come to work," said Darrell Cullins, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District project engineer. "These kids, and this community as a whole, had nothing. So this center is a big help."
The one-story school for children with special needs, completed in early December, was constructed in associated with the "Right to Smile" association, a Belgrade-based non-governmental organization for parents of children with special needs. It will provide an "inclusive education" model where students with special needs are educated in regular classes as much as possible.
"Before this facility, we did not have a facility for children with disabilities," said Varvarin Mayor Zoran Milenkovic. "And children with disabilities were deprived of any daycare center ... We are very glad that the children are going to have a place where they can spend their days."
The project is one of several District-managed construction and renovation projects in the Balkans funded by the U.S. European Command Humanitarian Assistance program. It serves to help the community recognize that the United States is a friend and partner, said Charles Brady, EUCOM's HA program manager.
"Our focus here - like our focus for all our HA projects - is to build friendships, stability and capacity for this country to take care of its own," Brady said.
The center, which took just over a year to complete, provides several work rooms, classrooms, bathrooms and sleeping areas for the children. The building also provides a kitchen, dining room and gymnasium as well as office space for the association, a laundry room, and a small storage room. It is slated to be furnished by late January and turned over to the local school district shortly thereafter.
"Our intent is to support the U.S. European Command and the U.S. Embassy here in building friendships by providing facilities that offer stability," said Cullins. "We're providing opportunities for these kids that they wouldn't have otherwise."
Maj. Devin Braun, bilateral affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, was part of the local team that advocated for EUCOM humanitarian assistance funds to be used in Varvarin. This central Serbian town of 2,200, located 65 miles south of Belgrade, is known throughout the Balkans for being a poor and vulnerable community.
"We look at communities of society where U.S. support and dollars would provide the most stability, security and friendship," said Braun. "And then they see what project would benefit them most appropriately. In this community, they needed this facility. They really did."
The city was the site of a 1999 NATO bombing campaign that destroyed a bridge over the Great Morava River. The bombing was part of the military operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War to destroy military infrastructure as well as bridges, government facilities and factories.
"We want to thank the embassy of the United States for this project," said Milenkovic. "Without such assistance it wouldn't be possible for a municipality such as ours to have adequate resources to build such a day care center for children who have such a huge need for such an establishment. And therefore we are grateful that the United States has been able to provide us such a capacity."
The school is one of 16 ongoing HA projects - valued at roughly $5 million - the District is managing for EUCOM, including sites in Albania, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia and Moldova. The District is also managing 12 projects for the U.S. African Command - worth about $4 million - in Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Zambia.
The majority of the District's HA projects are to construct simple, cost-effective facilities that provide an allied nation the ability to become more self reliant, said Cullins, who oversees the majority of the projects in Eastern Europe. Typical projects include schools, wells and health facilities.