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.
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.