Krusevac, Serbia - The weather here is really beginning to get me down. Snow has been falling across the region for a few days now, and the grey sky is drearily reflected in the drifts that blanket the frozen ground.
I've come to Serbia as part of a two-week field trip to the region to interview individuals and families that are benefiting from Mercy Corps programs. The first four days have been exhausting, yet enlightening and encouraging: I've met dozens of hard-working, courageous people eager to improve their lives, communities and country. Still, the long days and broad distances crossed are taking their toll on me.
It's eight o'clock in the morning, and we pull up in front of a hulking apartment building that's evocative of the country's socialist era. I step out of the car right into an icy, ankle-deep slush puddle. My cheer is further dampened. Bedraggled, I follow Rados, my colleague and translator, to a side door.
As the door opens, everything changes.
Warmth, cheer and camaraderie
As we step into the Duga Center, we are greeted with a kaleidoscope of smiling faces. There's a rush of warmth and happiness. The word "joy" immediately comes to mind.
The Duga Center is a place where children and adults with developmental disabilities can come, receive care and treatment, engage in activities and, above all, make friends. The word "duga" means "rainbow" in Serbo-Croatian. The brightness and cheer of the place dazzlingly affirm how fitting its moniker really is.
In 2004, Mercy Corps, through a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), helped the center completely renovate the space it currently occupies. Mercy Corps overhauled the roof, the electrical and plumbing systems, even the masonry framework. Everything is new, right down to the colorful walls, adorned with new paint chosen by the center's clients. Mercy Corps also provided funding for equipment such as furniture, exercise equipment and art supplies.
After Rados and I take time to shake hands with everyone in the room, Snezana - the center's director and head psychologist - offers us chairs at a tiny table. Everyone crowds around, still all smiles.
Snezana explains that the ages of the center's clients range from seventeen months to 47 years. More than 40 people frequent the center; most visit daily. They have disabilities like cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome, epilepsy and autism.
"This is the best thing that Mercy Corps could have done here. This center is the only one of its kind in Krusevac, and there are no others in the immediate area," Snezana says. "If this center didn't exist, these individuals would be sitting around at home - either by themselves or with a parent that isn't working as a result."
Indeed, the center is a boon for this economically depressed part of Serbia. Not only do clients receive the care and treatment they can't find anywhere else, but their at-home caregivers are able to work full-time jobs with the peace of mind that their loved ones are in a place where they are not only accepted, but loved.
And that's another heartwarming thing about the Duga Center.
"Our main intention here isn't medical," Snezana clarifies as she gives a young woman a comforting back rub. "It's simply to provide opportunities to these individuals, to get them out into the community with others, to interact and feel like they belong."
As she's talking, several clients are tugging on Snezana's sleeves.
"I'm being inconsiderate," she says. "I haven't introduced everyone yet."
The power of sharing
For the next several minutes, Snezana introduces me to everyone in the room. She takes special care to give endearing, often funny details about every single person.
I meet 15-year-old Jovanka, a young woman with cerebral palsy. "Jovanka's one of the best-dressed girls here, as you can see from her lovely pink sweater," Snezana says. Sitting next to her is Sonya, a 20-something woman with learning disabilities who reads Jovanka fairy tales and holds her hand much of the day.
I meet Nena, a 22-year-old woman with autism. She rocks gently back and forth next to me, cradling a red plastic fish in her hands. She laughs softly.
Nena reminds me a little of my brother, Danny, who is also autistic and nonverbal. While he is half a world away in Kansas right now, I feel a part of him here with me. My close bond with him deepens my affection for the individuals I am meeting right now.
Finally, I meet 24-year-old Dejan, a young man with epilepsy and learning disabilities. He's worn a striking blue tie for the occasion.
"He knew you were coming today. He wanted to look good for the pictures," Snezana says, as Dejan blushes and returns to a writing exercise he's doing.
"The most important part of this club - and of our work here - is friendship," Snezana continues. "We share everything here. When I open up and share my thoughts and feelings, they will too. That's why we've been successful here. We're a community."
As Marina, an energetic young woman in an orange sweater brings a tray of juice and sweet rolls - made by center members just for the occasion - from the kitchen, I take time again to look at the bright, smiling faces and notice the interaction of friends who are truly happy with one other's company.
In all my travels, I have rarely felt such happiness in a place. I can feel my eyes welling up with tears.
After finishing our snack, Snezana, Rados and I adjourn to an adjacent office to speak some more and take a look at before and after pictures of the center. Wiping tears from the corners of my eyes, I confide the deep feelings I'm experiencing at this moment.
I tell Snezana and Rados about my brother Danny. I express that what they're doing at the Duga Center is encouraging, and nothing short of amazing to me. I let Snezana know that I deeply appreciate and admire the work she and her staff are doing here.
"My brother would feel at home here, I know," I say. "And I would feel not only confident, but happy to have him here."
"I can tell when someone whose heart is open comes here," Snezana tells me quietly. "And the clients here can tell, too."
There is a moment of silence as I think of my brother and ponder her words.
Rados indicates that we have to be on our way; I have to leave for the Kosovo border in less than an hour. We do the rounds, bidding farewell to everyone at the center. I even get a couple of heartfelt hugs.
As Snezana bids us farewell at the door, I see a dozen smiling faces looking at us from behind the windows.
As I walk to the car, my shoe is still soaking wet, the skies grey and the wind bitterly cold. After our visit to the Duga Center, though, all I can feel is happiness, joy and, above all, warmth.