Bagázs, multi-level mentoring of a community

One of the most inspiring examples of a small-scale project focuses on a single colony of 500 people living on the border of Bag village in Hungary. The organisation was established by a probation officer, Emőke Both, who was working for the social readjustment of ex-prisoners in the village. She realised that her work was unable to bring a real change on its own, so decided to establish a non-profit association. The strategy she employed was to develop strong personal bonds and then promote broad change by utilising them. 

The organisation has now trained around 10 ‘local peer mentors’ from among the youth of the colony, who live there themselves and can provide help from within the community. There are several supporting mentors, usually university students who work together in pairs, with two volunteering secondary school students giving support weekly to four local children. The main goal is to help with schoolwork and through this to form an informal bond which can be used for crime and drug prevention work with the children and general inspirational work to make the kids aspire and realise their goals.

Photo: Giusi Barbiani (CC BY-NC 2.0)
A Romani slum in Medgidia, South-East Romania.

In an interview, Sanyi (18), a local peer mentor said that the community gradually opened up to the Bagázs volunteers and the hostility decreased from widespread resentment to a small fraction. Through their children, the parents, and especially mothers started to seek support from them. This led to a development of a women’s mentor program, where they receive support in dealing with household financial issues and learn how to help their children themselves. They receive help with primary education, as the majority of them are practically illiterate. Sanyi also explained the use of the mentor groups: ‘In the beginning the kids opened up much more to the Budapest guys, everybody has a dark past here and we all know each other, they didn’t trust me. But this gradually got better and I’m the one who can control them if they go wild.’

'Everyone has a dark past here and we all know each other, [initally] they didn't trust me.'

Réka (16), a high school volunteer told me that the main guideline for postive intervention in the Roma community is to break the dependency circle, and promote a proactive attitude. With this in mind, all the children's work and the gifts they can give are strictly regulated so that the children can form their own motivation. The organisation felt that a big success of the project was when the older generation proposed to teach Romani language to the volunteers and the younger generation as an exchange for their tutoring work. 

There are still difficulties with the project, and there remains a hostile faction in the community. The children are sometimes forced into segregated schools or need to go to schools for children with special needs. These settings are outside the control of the NGO and can lead young people into a negative circle of drug use or truancy. Overall though, the locals themselves and both the local and non-local volunteers agree that Bagázs has made a fundamental impact on their world-view and life goals.

Next page: Local action, global conclusion?

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