With Grant, Student Strives to Address Autism in Serbia
Published: Friday, January 31, 2014
Updated: Friday, January 31, 2014 00:01
While other students are soundly asleep as the sun is rising, Milosh Popovic (SFS ’16) is on the phone with tennis coaches in Serbia. The Serbian-born student recently received a grant from the Georgetown International Relations Association to launch a tennis mentoring program for disabled students in Belgrade. Popovic’s plan is to create a program similar to one he began in his hometown of Princeton, New Jersey, in which high school students taught autistic children to play tennis. Although the prospect of coordinating a program halfway around the world while carrying a full course load might be daunting for some, Popovic couldn’t be more confident.
Can you introduce your program and the grant you received?
This all started my junior year of high school when I coordinated with my high school tennis team and my local tennis club to start a tennis program for autistic kids. We got high school tennis players in the local area to volunteer to help autistic children learn to play. After a couple of months, what I noticed is that people were continuing to coach all through high school, even after they had gotten their mandatory volunteer hours, because they had made strong bonds with the kids. So the Georgetown International Relations Association, a nonprofit, was giving out a global development grant for any program that was trying to solve an international development problem globally. I saw inclusivity of the disabled community as an important issue worldwide. And I thought, where better to start than a place where I am familiar with the terrain — I know the culture and I know the language. So I met with the Board of Directors for a local special education school in Serbia and I worked with getting them connected to a local tennis club. Over spring break, I will go and meet the children and their families. It is very important for me to have a personal connection with them and not just work from abroad. One issue in Serbia is that not many people know what disability is.
What is your background with Serbia?
I moved to America from Belgrade in 1998 because of the civil war. I don’t remember much of it, but I remember three months after we came to this county, Belgrade was bombed. The image of my city being destroyed had an impact on me, but also drew me closer to my roots. I’ve always had an attachment to Serbia and I still have a lot of family back there. The ability to work on a program in Serbia is my way of giving back for all of the opportunities I have been given here in America. The willingness to give back to my roots definitely fuels my passion and motivation to start this program.
What results did you see from your high school program?
I got many more high school students to learn about disability; although people went to school with people with disabilities, they didn’t really know them. Not only did the autistic kids in the program learn a lot from the mentors, but the mentors learned a lot as well. The mentors were brought down to earth by the opportunity to teach tennis. They could share teaching something they love with the community.
Why are sports a good way to effect change?
You not only learn skills, but being able to teach somebody something that they can’t learn in the classroom helps forge a closer bond. Sports, especially tennis, are very mental and require concentration and focus. These skills are good to develop for anybody. But also, the idea of being on a team, through the group doing drills, allows everybody to support each other. Having this camaraderie not only bridges the gap between the high school students and the disabled community, but also between the disabled people in the program. This can develop strong bonds and friendships that are more difficult to acquire in the classroom.
Has it been hard to sort out the logistics in Serbia?
Serbia is an Eastern European country, so bureaucracy poses many challenges. The reason I have to go back there over spring break is to prove that this is a real goal and that I am not just doing this for myself, because there is often a lot of skepticism with any Western aid coming in. But for me having ties with the region, that helps. I’m looking forward to the face-to-face interaction which is the last step I need to really solidify the program. This interaction will show that I really do care about these kids and I’m not just doing this for self-aggrandizement.
What is your vision for the program in the future?
It’s all very idealistic in a sense because of all of the bureaucracy in Serbia. But I think this one small step can get people talking about disability and promote discussion. It can open up high school students to the disabled community and vice versa. Maybe even the Serbian government notices. Maybe the Minister of Education notices and they start sponsoring programs like this. Again, this is really far down the road, but for me, impossible is nothing. The fact that I’ve gotten high school students in Princeton, who normally just do things to get their hours, to actually enjoy and willingly participate in the program is no easy task. The fact that the program is in its 5th year shows that I can continue that success elsewhere. What better place to start then where my roots are?