Building Bridges to the Digital Future: Transforming Communities through Education in the West Balkans
In recent years, the YMCAs in the West Balkans, powered by HP, have spearheaded a remarkable transformation in the field of education and engagement within the digital landscape. Across several countries in the region, YMCA has been at the forefront of empowering communities through diverse initiatives. These endeavors ranged from pioneering programs that deliver educational courses to seamlessly integrating programs into the realm of technology.
This article takes a deep dive into the journeys undertaken by four YMCAs in the West Balkan region – Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia – shining light on their tireless efforts to promote digital literacy, with the hopes of equipping individuals of all ages with the fundamental skills and knowledge required to thrive in the digital age.
In 2022, YMCA Kosovo joined a significant initiative by participating in a global pilot program focused on delivering digital courses in partnership with HP. YMCA Kosovo established three hubs in Peja, Gjakova, and Prishtina, which are integrated into their youth centers.
The hubs offer a diverse range of courses and digital sessions, including coding, touch typing, and 3D printing, alongside the HP curriculum. This program has positively impacted a staggering amount of 1,500 young individuals, with 500 of them already obtaining certificates of achievement within this year. YMCA Kosovo expects the number to grow to 2,000, with 200 more certificates awarded by the end of the year. Learn more about their stories.
To help young people determine the right course for them, YMCA Kosovo provides one-time sessions of digital activities and courses they offer, encouraging young people to explore options that can truly enhance their resumes. YMCA staff members also play a crucial role in guiding and encouraging young people in pursuing their newfound interests.
YMCA Kosovo is also actively involved in a national STEAM coalition of non-governmental organizations. Their efforts include shaping a national STEAM profile and policy, as well as advocating for increased funding and support in this field. They collaborate annually with the US Embassy, which has a keen interest in digital initiatives. The organization has already integrated STEAM-related events, such as STEAM Day, Coding Day, and LEGO Day, into their national calendar.
These hubs are an integral part of the national ‘STEAM Box’ strategy, and Kosovo YMCA has secured extended support for STEAM and digital initiatives in Prishtina for another three years aside from other pending bids through organizations like SMART Balkans and embassies. The organization is also looking forward to expand their facilities, such as establishing a digital cafe, and building STEAM room for their camp in Pjetershan, which will be ready in 2024.
YMCA Kosovo’s initiatives have not only transformed digital education but also paved the way for a brighter future for young individuals, further solidifying their position as a leader in STEAM education and advocacy.
In 2023, YMCA Serbia embarked on a mission to empower its community through digital education and engagement initiatives. The project in Serbia was designed to address the pressing need for digital education, particularly among children, with the aim of bridging the digital divide.
One of the key initiatives within the project was the introduction of HP LIFE Courses, targeting local high school students, which began in March. Despite challenges and need to adjust to the student’s interests in the initial months, YMCA Serbia remains committed and is excited to continuing this initiative in the coming months.
YMCA Serbia also established a cooperation with a primary school in Backi Petrovac, which, after recognizing a significant gap in digital education for children, expressed strong interest in participating in digital workshops offered by educators from the YMCA’s Digital Community Hub.
These workshops featured certified platforms such as Google’s Interland, Nat Geo’s Recycle Roundup, and CODE.org’s educational programming applications.
These collaborations have expanded further beyond educational institutions. In collaboration with the local independent media center, Storyteller, the YMCA’s Digital Community Hub hosted a workshop for young future journalists. This partnership and workshop were of high importance for the community, considering the challenges independent journalism in Serbia was facing.
On top of that, the project has had a significant impact on the Slovak Minority in Serbia, who lacked access to a formal curriculum, textbooks, or trained educators for the “Digital World” subject. Teachers and school principals has expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be part of this program and will continue using the Hubs on a regular basis.
Overall, the project also successfully integrated most of the running programs into the Digital Community Hub, creating a cohesive identity, which enhanced project sustainability and ensures that young people will continue to benefit from a wide range of YMCA’s programs. This integration includes Leadership programs, Summer Camps, Day Care Centers, Mother’s Circles, and Career Counseling.
In terms of outcomes and impact, the project has reached a total of 500 beneficiaries by October 2023. It effectively addressed the digital education gap among children in the community, particularly among the Slovak Minority, equipping them with valuable digital skills and knowledge. The collaboration with the primary school in Backi Petrovac and the journalism workshop fostered grassroots engagement, reinforcing YMCA’s commitment to community empowerment.
Looking ahead, YMCA Serbia remains committed to expanding its reach and impact in the upcoming school year, which includes strengthening partnerships with high schools and primary schools, collaborating with local clubs catering to seniors, and to continue integrating YMCA programs into the Digital Community Hub. These efforts aim to create lasting change and provide a comprehensive support system for the community the YMCA wholeheartedly serve.
Throughout the year, the HP courses initiated by YMCA North Macedonia have garnered a remarkable response, setting a positive tone for the organization’s digital education initiatives. A wide spectrum of students, hailing from nearly every primary and secondary school in their city, eagerly embraced the opportunity to experience the quality and benefits of these courses firsthand.
The digital center operated by YMCA North Macedonia has been functioning seamlessly since March, ensuring consistent engagement with their activities. Naturally, there was a slight reduction in attendance during the summer months when many children were on vacation and not actively participating in extracurricular or informal activities.
This period of respite provided YMCA North Macedonia with an opportunity to undertake a thorough review of their achieved results. It also served as a platform for discussing potential avenues for enhancing the learning experience and exploring opportunities for expanding their reach within the community.
As the new school year commenced, YMCA North Macedonia embarked on meticulous planning and scheduling, aligning their objectives with the academic calendar. They engaged in fruitful discussions with informatics and English teachers, as well as school directors, presenting them with their comprehensive vision encompassing the HP LIFE courses and the broader project.
The implementation of HP LIFE courses brought forth a wave of enthusiasm that was truly heartwarming to witness, as young individuals show an unwavering eagerness to complete all the courses at once, showing a profound interest in digital education. Furthermore, several schools displayed remarkable enthusiasm, even requesting special time slots reserved exclusively for their students.
To date, YMCA North Macedonia has served 370 participants, and aspirations for the remainder of the year are ambitious. YMCA North Macedonia are on track to reach their target of 500-600 participants, all of whom will become ambassadors of their program, sharing their experiences with peers, friends and family. YMCA North Macedonia’s ultimate goal is to extend the benefits of these courses to as many young people in their city as possible, equipping them with valuable skills and knowledge for their future endeavors.
The introduction of HP courses in YMCA Albania has sparked enthusiasm not only among children and young adults but also among individuals of various age groups.
Middle-aged participants, students, educators, professionals, and municipal staff members from Berat and community center staff from Tirana have eagerly embraced the opportunity to enhance their digital skills and improve their daily work performance at the YMCA Digital Hubs.
Among the HP LIFE courses, the most preferred ones include Social Entrepreneurship, Digital Business Skills, Effective Presentations and Effective Leadership, Starting a Small Business, Selling Online, and 3D printing and Finance courses.
Each hub receives approximately 400 monthly visitors, including both first-time and regular attendees, who find value the experience. Visitors come to increase their knowledge, expand their network, and enjoy the benefits of the hub’s resources. Learn more some of their stories.
More than half of the members have already completed at least one course through the HP LIFE platform, and is very thankful for opportunities presented by HP and the YMCA Digital Hub.
To ensure that YMCA Albania can reach all layers of society, YMCA Albania is actively collaborating with other organizations that serve vulnerable target groups, such as the Roma and Egyptian communities, and community public centers by providing mobile hub services. Discussions have also begun with secondary and high schools eager to cooperate, pending final approval from the Ministry of Education.
Collaboration plays a part in YMCA Albania’s success. In partnership with “Partners Albania,” the largest NGO in the country, YMCA Albania organized a workshop during the “Week of Civil Society,” supported by the EU. The workshop focused on advocating for equal access to information technology for young people in remote areas.
Following this event, the organization supported a school in a remote area in Berat with laptops and a printer, establishing another hub in the suburbs of Berat. YMCA Albania has also received requests from other municipalities to establish Digital Hubs, emphasizing the pressing need for accessible digital services across the country.
Additionally, YMCA Albania offers non-HP courses covering a wide range of topics, including Microsoft Office, 3D and Typing, Graphic Design, Web Design, Technology Information and Communication (TIK), Green Package, MatLab, Elements of Information, Electronics, Resume and CV Writing, E-Albania, Social Media, and Technical Drawing.
Since September, YMCA Albania has introduced ‘Hour of Coding’ sessions, engaging participants in coding through entertaining activities tailored to different age groups from 4 to 18 years old, fostering an environment of active learning and enjoyment. YMCA Albania reports a significant impact on the community through its two digital hubs, with a massive total of 3.249 direct beneficiaries frequenting these hubs until the end of September.
The impact of digital education in the West Balkans, led by YMCA, stands as a testament to the power of collaboration and innovation. With continuous support from HP, across Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia, the combined efforts of these YMCAs have empowered thousands of beneficiaries.
HP’s commitment has been instrumental in making these achievements possible. Their partnership has not only provided the resources required but has also acted as a catalyst for positive change in these communities. Together, we have paved the way for brighter and more digitally inclusive future.