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Community Impact

Creating a Strong Virtual Network: The Story of Nemanja, a Youth Leader

A selfie of a young-adult man smiling in a white Stavros Niarchos Foundation shirt, holding a hand-drawn sign that reads “SNF, Stay Home, Special Olympics”
Youth Coordinator Nemanja poses during Special Olympics Serbia’s online “Stay Home” campaign.

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a variety of complex issues for young people around the world, such as social isolation, anxiety and lack of physical fitness. Together, these factors have negatively affected the mental health of youth with and without intellectual disabilities. While the pandemic has touched this generation during a pivotal and developmental period of their lives, many young people nevertheless have risen to the occasion and developed creative approaches to combat the unanticipated circumstances they face.

In Serbia, the pandemic halted such regular Play Unified: Learn Unified activities as sports tournaments, local media showcases, and youth summits. However, one Youth Leader by the name of Nemanja stepped forward to tackle the social isolation being felt by his peers across the country. Nemanja connected with ten other Youth Leaders and together they developed a virtual social network for Serbian youth. The network was launched on Facebook, and as the group connected with friends near and far—at virtual tournaments, trainings, and workshops—it expanded to over 40 of Serbia’s most passionate Youth Leaders.

A collage of four youth in four separate frames, two girls and two boys, each holding a hand-drawn “SNF, Stay Home, Special Olympics” sign and smiling.
Special Olympics Youth Leaders pose during the virtual “Stay Home” campaign.

As time went on, the Youth Leaders adjusted to the virtual world and found both solace and strength in this network of peers. The youth network has made big plans to stay connected, expand Play Unified: Learn Unified to more schools, and in some cases meet each other in person as Special Olympics Serbia returns to play. Jovan, a Special Olympics athlete in Pirot, echoes this idea when he says, “I am very happy to have the opportunity to continue to be with my friends. I can still learn new skills. I will soon be able to use my new skills live.”

Special Olympics Serbia’s youth network is strengthening connections during a time of social isolation and providing opportunities for youth to build friendships in new ways.

Unified Schools

Play Unified: Learn Unified in Serbia has gained notoriety in the country’s education community, creating 87 new Unified Schools during the initiative’s first three years. With the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Play Unified: Learn Unified has engaged 760 athletes with intellectual disabilities and Unified partners, and 280 Youth Leaders in Serbia since 2018.

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