Pavel aims to fundamentally improve the educational success of children from disadvantaged minorities, breaking the vicious cycle of generational poverty. By activating successful local community members as coaches and trainers, he is enabling parents from the most impoverished communities in Slovakia to learn and practice early childhood development techniques with children from 0-6 years of age. In the process, he is also working to change mindsets in Slovakia that continue to perpetuate stereotypes and prejudices that exclude Roma children from opportunities in education and employment.
The New Idea
In Slovakia, a large number of people in extreme poverty are Roma, a minority that has suffered systematic persecution and racism for centuries. Roma people often live in marginalized settlements with limited access to basic services and children in these communities face serious challenges and barriers to access and excel in their education and skills development in society-at-large.
To provide these children a real chance at success in education and into adulthood, Pavel is giving these communities access to the most advanced early childhood development strategies, adapted to their reality. Thus, families can start stimulating their children’s neural development earlier on, improving skills and behaviors including speaking and talking, listening and concentrating and managing emotions.
He has designed an innovative multi-faceted approach that trains parents to directly implement techniques in their own home rather than in a specialized center. The training begins earlier (with children ages 0-3 years old) and is bolstered by parent-support groups and spread through respected community members rather than external professionals. Drawing on some of the most advanced research on child development (such as the Harvard Center for Early Childhood Development and the Intergrowth-21st Neurodevelopmental Assessment, created by researchers from Oxford University), Pavel has adapted strategies for accelerating childhood development to be able to be implemented directly in severely impoverished communities and quickly learned and applied by parents with little or no formal education background. Additionally, Pavel has developed a robust impact measurement methodology along with leading experts in the field of child development in order to track success, continually improve the model’s efficacy and create profound evidence for scaling the model.
One of the keys for success involves identifying and training local Omamas (an endearing term in Slovak akin to “grandmother”): these are respected members of the Roma communities, who are selected through a process based on skills – such as empathy or the ability to learn and play – rather than academic titles, who are employed and supported to become experts and coaches in early childhood development for their own communities. Rather than bringing external experts to communities or asking parents to drop off their kids at a specialized pre-school or center, Omamas visit families in their homes and teach parents how to carry out these techniques.
Pavel’s work also aims at weaving new connections and bringing new resources to these communities that have been pushed to the margins of society. Pavel has built a vast network of supporters for this work from all spheres of society (including public administration departments, media, mayors from towns nearby settlements, and thousands of individual donors from different socio-economic levels). This network not only brings new economic resources to these communities but is also experiencing a mindset shift as they interact with Omamas and learn about the complex realities their communities face. To increase impact and create synergies, Pavel has built key partnerships with government agencies to scale this work and has co-founded a collaborative network with organizations that tackle other root issues of generational poverty.
Pavel is creating a comprehensive movement that can be scaled across Central Eastern Europe. This movement strives not only to combat generational poverty in CEE countries but also to put an end to the historical discrimination faced by people in poverty, particularly the Romani community.
In Slovakia, nearly 16% of the population lives in risk of poverty or social exclusion. This problem disproportionately affects the Roma community, an ethnic minority present across all of Europe who continue to suffer from discrimination and lack of access, especially in Slovakia. Comprising nearly one tenth of the Slovak population (around 400,000-500,000 people), Roma have suffered centuries of oppression and exclusion, pushing them to the fringes of society. Indeed, 87% of the Roma population in Slovakia are in or at risk of severe poverty (in contrast to only 13% of the non-Roma population), and only one fourth have a formal paying job, which often earns less than the minimum wage. Most Roma live in segregated settlements throughout the country, in rural areas, or on the outskirts of towns and cities. These settlements often consist of provisional housing structures, formed from mud, soil, wood or construction scrap. They also lack access to basic services that are readily available to citizens living in towns and cities, including running water, heating, or electricity in homes or public services such as sewage systems or access to mass transport.
For many of those living in these settlements, conditions have been similar for decades, going back generations. This often produces what some experts call generational poverty, referring to additional social, community and belief patterns that have been perpetuated over generations, which add to the already difficult external barriers to exit poverty. Breaking free from this cycle includes achieving significant access to dignified employment, housing, and education.
Zooming in on education as a lever to lift barriers to exit generational poverty, Roma citizens living in settlements on the outskirts of society face serious challenges to accessing adequate primary and secondary education. Roma children continue to face serious segregation that impedes them from full access to public and free education in Slovakia. Throughout the country, Roma students are generally separated from non-Roma students, either through ethnically separated schools or keeping students in separate classes (and sometimes even dining facilities). Since 2015, the European Commission has brought ongoing infringement proceedings against Slovakia for these discriminatory practices against Roma, under the EU Race Equality Directive. Slovakia also has a troubled history (and ongoing practice) of teachers and school administrators placing Roma students in special education classes or schools without serious justification, stymieing their education potential for life and reinforcing a sense of failure in the students and parents. Despite representing merely one-tenth of the population, Roma students account for 50% of those enrolled in special education classes and over 40% of students in special education schools. Disappointment in the school system, in addition to the lack of effective job opportunities helps explain the astronomic high-school drop-out rate of 83% for Roma students (vs. 7% of non-Roma population).
In addition to these impediments to accessing full education, Roma children also face barriers to receiving proper preparation for formal education. First, while there has been a significant increase in preschool education options for Slovak citizens (which is not public or free), Roma children have been left out at the most important stage of brain development. The brain of a 0-3-year-old child responds most to the external educational content (this era is also defined as the plastic brain). Yet only 1/3 of Roma children are enrolled in kindergartens, in contrast to 80% of non-Roma children. Barriers range from tuition fees (set by municipalities with no limit), lack of information, no adequate public transport, and discrimination in enrollment, which adds to a historically justified mistrust in the system on behalf of parents. Second, many Roma children grow up with a mix of at least two, if not three, or more languages, including Romani, Hungarian, and Slovak. Although being bi or tri-lingual is an advantage in the long run, the lack of early formal language lessons in any of these languages makes it more difficult for them to achieve the same results in reading and comprehension as non-Roma students during the first years of their education. Very few pre-schools or schools provide additional support for students to speak or master Romani. Neither are there Roma teachers or assistants in most schools, nor other professionals who are trained to assist Roma students. A recent survey unearthed only 10 teachers who identified as Roma in all of Slovakia. Finally, growing up in abject poverty adds a factor that some experts call “toxic stress” – a situation some parents find themselves in that hinders their ability to provide certain kinds of basic care (including holding children often, eye contact, patience, repeating babbling sounds their babies make, etc.) which can hinder key cognitive development aspects in young children, including comprehension, attention span, and coordination.
All these factors play a role in how Roma children from poor settlements often enter the education system at a severe disadvantage. When these are added to the deep-seated, centuries-old prejudices that most teachers and administrators hold against Roma, stereotypes are inevitably reinforced, portraying them as unable and unwilling to be educated. This affects Roma students themselves, as well as their families, who become discouraged at the prospect of education. It is no surprise that these circumstances lead to results such as Pisa studies showing a 5-year educational gap in relation to non-Roma students.
In order to aid students from disadvantaged communities to do better in school, early childhood development has been shown over the last decade or so as an effective strategy that brings high returns to overall education with less investment than remedial education later in life. For children who are exposed to toxic stress and extreme poverty, or other traumatizing circumstances, early childhood development strategies have been shown to help build resilience while improving cognitive response, thus drastically improving their chances of doing well in formal education systems.
In Slovakia, a number of organizations, including the church, have attempted to bring aspects of early childhood development to underserved communities. However, most have been discontinued as they have not been able to achieve ongoing success. Often, they were designed and implemented by social workers from outside the community, who failed to deal with historic mistrust, adapt to Roma cultural norms, or show real advantages to parents. They also generally consisted of trained staff from outside of the communities practicing the techniques with children, rather than teaching parents and other family members, creating unhealthy dependencies and increasing the sense in parents as disconnected from or unable to contribute to their children’s education process. Many were also short-term projects, connected to one-off funding from transnational projects with very little, if any, local buy-in or funding diversification. This has led to a lack of success in ongoing implementation. Other programs have emerged from the communities themselves and seem to achieve better results, but due to a lack of funding and access for Roma leaders to leverage scaling ecosystems in Slovakia, they are severely limited in scope and ability to grow beyond a given community.
From another perspective, a major issue in addressing some of these deep structural barriers has involved an apparent lack of care or interest from non-Roma society, both in Slovakia and across Europe. Leaders in non-profit organizations speak of a “fatigue” in organizations, government officials, and society regarding this issue. Perhaps due to the complexity of underlying issues, the lack of easy solutions, or deep-seated personal prejudices and history that needs to be dealt with, many people find it easier to look the other way or blame Roma themselves, reinforcing stereotypes of them as incapable of “adapting” to modern society. Pavel sees this as a key factor that needs to change. Until society as a whole takes responsibility for an issue that affects them all, it is unlikely that the right resources, thinking, and will could be activated to bring change.
Beyond the passiveness of society, recently populist xenophobic political groups have begun to explicitly single out Roma with hate speech: at best, they blame Roma for their own problems; at worst, they scapegoat them as the source of society’s ills. These messages pose a serious threat to Roma communities, especially as they gain traction amongst citizens across Europe. In Slovakia in particular, Roma civil society has little public support or visibility, making it difficult for Roma to tell or show a different message.
Pavel’s organization is called Cesta Von, or “A Way Out” in English, hinting at its purpose to provide a way out of generational poverty in Slovakia. Aware of the range of barriers that surround people in long-term, generational poverty, including lack of proper access to decent employment, housing, and education, Pavel chose to concentrate on early childhood development as a key to unlocking the system. Based on research that shows that early childhood development can produce positive results in almost every area of a child’s life as they develop and even into adulthood, and previous successful experiences with these strategies, Pavel has designed an approach to achieve deep impact in young children in the most affected communities across Slovakia.
His strategy involves three key elements: (1) designing a model that works and proving it through careful impact measurement, engaging communities from within to self-manage and improve the processes, (2) sharing their work as a template for other organizations, including the public administration, to scale both in Slovakia and beyond and (3) working on mindset shift with the rest of Slovak society to hopefully minimize the historical racism against Romani which becomes the biggest threat for these children when they start going to school.
The model Pavel has developed consists in bringing the most advanced early childhood development techniques to the poorest and most excluded communities in Slovakia and adapting them to be able to be directly implemented by families who previously had no access to pre-schools, much less advanced pedagogical research. To achieve this, Pavel's team in collaboration with top experts created a model that could be seamlessly implemented in the poorest communities in Slovakia. The result is a systematic methodology to stimulate children’s neurological capabilities on a weekly basis from birth to 3 years of age. It is designed so that parents and family members are trained weekly so they can regularly implement these techniques. To be able to be implemented by anyone, Pavel and his team have created a detailed week-by-week guide on how to train and implement the system, which includes written material, videos, and other resources.
By focusing on early childhood development, Pavel aims to solve a number of problems at once. First, this enables children from the poorest communities to be better prepared for school and to acquire skills throughout their life. In extreme cases, it keeps children from developing cognitive impairment due to toxic stress transmitted from parents. Generally, it is also shown to increase resilience for children that will, without a doubt, face significant challenges in life. Secondly, by training parents, it enables them to feel more confident and empowered to support their children to have success. After decades of rejection, failed results and exclusion, parents underestimate their ability as primary educators to help their children succeed. Learning basic techniques to connect with their children and help them develop more quickly boosts their confidence and resolve to ensure their children fully participate. Finally, as Roma children are better prepared for their first day of primary school, Pavel believes it will help avoid misunderstandings – or justification of prejudices – that lead teachers and classmates to consider Roma children as less developed or mentally impaired, often resulting in them being assigned to special classes or schools, reinforcing stereotypes, and maintaining a system of severely segregated education.
In addition to this innovative methodology, the key to Pavel’s strategy resides in who implements it and how it reaches the communities involved in order to engage parents to make the model their own. For early childhood development strategies to become self-managed and eventually part of the fabric of communities facing exclusion, Cesta Von has created the figure of Omamas (an endearing term in Slovak akin to “grandmother”). These are Roma women who are from the communities they serve, that become experts in early childhood development and coach and connect families as they practice the techniques and work with their own children. Identifying, training, supporting, and involving them as key stakeholders in the organization itself are the keys to success.
To find the right women to become Omamas, Pavel’s team built an innovative selection process that doesn’t depend on candidate’s academic results or previous work experience. Instead, they start with nominations from local stakeholders (principles, school directors, government officials, Roma community leaders) and then measure key skills and characteristics, such as their desire and ability to learn, how respected they are in the community, their master of empathy, and how well they play with children. Rather than individual interviews, the selection process happens as a community where they learn together, regardless of whether they are selected. Once one or two Omamas are selected for a given community, they are hired, which is often their first formal employment, and placed on a career path with clear criteria for increasing levels and pay, support from an experienced mentor to help them navigate the work world and build relationships outside of the community, and the opportunity to join the organization as a voting member after a year. This full participation is an essential aspect for the organization’s growth, as it enables Roma women to truly contribute to shaping the organization and its strategies, while retaining meaningful employment and incentives to build a professional career.
Upon completing their training, Omamas are presented to the community as experts, and begin home visits with volunteering families to model with parents (especially mothers) how to stimulate development in their youngest children. These home visits are done for a couple of hours every week and the Omamas only go there if the parents are present to learn from them. The aim of these visits is always to educate the parents on children’s developments, never to provide direct service to the children.
Omamas are also supported to grow professionally and personally: they are matched with a local mentor (local middle-class women with working experience in the sector) who help them boost their self-confidence and give practical guidance in skills related to the professional world, relationships with local and national officials (such as school directors or local mayors), etc. A growing number of the Omamas were hired by local kindergartens as teacher assistants even though they didn’t have the necessary level of formal education to acquire that job. The teachers at these kindergartens convinced the management to hire the Omamas as they’ve seen their effect on children from settlements. Many more are enrolling in formal education to receive the qualifications that would allow them to work in the education system, where Roma teachers and staff are severely underrepresented.
In order to measure the effectiveness of the approach, Omamas regularly collect data on the development of their clients (standardized pediatric screenings) through a mobile app and add insights into new ways to evaluate success. If the data shows that children could be at risk in their development, Omamas connect the family to experts (special pedagogues, psychologists, speech therapists, deaf therapists, etc.) for a proper health examination.
Pavel’s team collaborated with Dr. Michelle Fernandes from Oxford University on impact measurement, specifically in the areas of cognition, speech, fine and gross motor skills, and social behavior. First comprehensive impact measurements were completed in 2022 and showed that children in the Omama program perform significantly better in cognition, motor skills, and language skills than their peers from poor settlements who were not enrolled in the program.
Pavel has now developed, tested, and improved this model which has become a template for designing a new state service. In 2018, his team chose three of the poorest communities in Slovakia for a first run. Within five years, they have now reached 30 communities, activating 43 Omamas, who are directly reaching 900 children and have reached a critical mass of 10% of children in generational poverty (800 out of around 8,000 children). In 2022, the Slovak Government adopted the National Strategy for the Development of Coordinated Early Intervention and Early Care Services and committed to create a new national social service for children ages 0 – 3 years old, based on Pavel’s model that will be implemented in 2025. Pavel is also advocating for a state fund designed to finance early childhood development for communities affected by generational poverty. This will incentivize other organizations and local partners to implement similar programs and reach more children more quickly.
Pavel summarizes all generational poverty issues in three categories: Housing, Employment, Education. While Cesta Von prioritizes education work, recognizing that they cannot work on all issues, the Omama program has also become a first employment opportunity for Roma women who wouldn’t be hired by other employers due to their lack of formal education or work experience. Appreciating this first chance given to them, Omamas encouraged the rest of Cesta Von team to start a new program: Filip. Filip is a support program to whole families from the Omama Program, who are assigned a mentor – a person they meet with once a week to guide them on their journey toward their goals in financial behavior, housing, employment, debt, or another specific area. This program is now combined with a partnership with the National Bank of Slovakia.
Some of the more experienced Omamas are also playing a crucial role in breaking down stereotypes and giving voice to their communities. Through a robust community of supporters and media partners, Pavel has created multiple channels for them to share their stories and experiences, regularly being featured on national TV shows or radio programs or giving TED talks.
Pavel is also working on a number of committees and teams to coordinate efforts on early childhood development with other key strategies in education, employment, and housing to eradicate generational poverty. For example, he is a co-founder of the Poverty Bridges partnership that coordinates efforts amongst key stakeholders in the sector. Also, thanks to the deep presence they have achieved in some of these communities, Pavel’s organization is broadening their offerings to provide other needed services such as mentoring programs, stakeholders trainings, and peer-to-peer support programs.
Pavel has a life-long trajectory of entrepreneurial work for the good of society, with a special focus on activating citizens to see important social issues and do something about it. Already at the age of 14, shortly after Slovakia’s democratic transition, Pavel played a key role in launching and developing the Scouts movement in the country. He quickly became a leader in the movement, launching new teams, and founding a nationwide magazine to further democratic and scout values. During this period he also pioneered a scout troop with mostly Roma children, an innovative project to involve excluded communities. There, he encountered first-hand some of the massive gaps in access, skills training and educational foundations that exist between Roma children and the majority society due to persistent marginalization. Getting to know some of the most underserved communities in Slovakia through Scouts also gave Pavel insights into the vicious cycle of generational poverty that retain communities in dire conditions. This fed much of his work later on as the program director for Pontis, one of the largest non-profits in Slovakia.
At 40, Pavel decided to re-evaluate his life, in order to discover the most effective way to spend the second half of his career for the good of all. This exercise led him to imagine what it would take to eradicate generational poverty. Pouring over research and through dozens of conversations with experts, Pavel became convinced that focusing on early childhood education as a lever to unlock new potential in communities, and also to bring in new resources and excitement about solving this major problem. One experience that marked him was a project he led at Pontis with children who were born deaf. He describes the cognitive development and skill acquisition that he saw develop in these children over the years as quasi miraculous, and became convinced of the power of these strategies in the hands of loving parents. After meticulously testing a number of strategic approaches, Pavel decided to leave Pontis, and launched Cesta Von along with his wife and another key team member.
Pavel is a team leader who relishes seeing others succeed beyond what they thought was possible. This drives his approach to solving problems, which often involves bringing together unlikely collaborators along with experts in the field he’s seeking to change. In many ways, Pavel sees himself more as an invisible weaver of talent and expertise in order to create new approaches. Also, he understands the need from strong communities to surround social projects, both to provide support to the implementors, as well as for more people to own the problem and dedicate energy and resources to it. This is even more important in such a complex issue such as generational poverty: an issue for to which many people’s response is to either ignore it, blame the victim (especially when historical racial prejudice is involved) or assume the government and non-profits will eventually solve it. Instead, Pavel wants citizens from all spheres of society to identify it as an issue they all need to work together to solve.