09 October, 2015
I have had a number of people ask me about the specifics of my job at the school (the center, the school, Education & Rehab Center, special school….we’re know by many names here). Initially, I responded with “I haven’t a clue” because I was given some very broad guidelines and naturally, things have shifted as I’ve observed people and practices here… and put their work into the local cultural context.
This isn’t an American system and it would be unrealistic to try to set them up to that standard. But there are strengths here and opportunities to build upon them – and that is essentially what I plan to do this year. How? Good question. I’m still figuring that out.
But I have lots of ideas.
I was speaking with Vera, the head of non-academic training (extracurricular activities and social development…there really isn’t a good translation for her role here). Anyhow, I was talking about how it would be good to promote more life skills training (independent living skills training). Because while they get little bits of this, there isn’t an actual curriculum. And so I impressed on them the importance of starting early to learn “home and life” skills as a way to build up confidence and the ability to be more independent after graduation if a job were ever to be available to them. I have had similar conversations with other staff here and they mostly look at me with a sad pity, because there is almost nothing available to kids after graduation…and their thinking is not to set them up for failure. Vera on the other hand, understood my point about building up a foundation of skills so that when things do change here, these guys will be ready for it. She told me she had some ideas and maybe we could talk more about it later.
And then two days ago she surprised me by showing me the plan in action. (Day p’yatʹ/high five Vera!!)
She had set up food preparation classes for kids at all ages, who were spread out in various places around the school. First she showed me the girls of the 6th or 7th grade who were having a ‘cook off’ of light desserts. The youngest kids were celebrating bees and making a fruit salad with honey and yogurt. They were learning how to safely cut fruit and make equal sizes, and how to balance the different fruits for better nutrition. And then other groups cycled in, making salads and fancy little appetizers (depending on their age and skill level).
Those with greater intellectual disabilities were given ready-made cookies that they dusted with powdered sugar and dolloped with jam. Each class worked well as a group and shared and helped each other. I was so impressed with their team efforts. There was laughter and powdered sugar flying everywhere, and naturally we had to sample everything. (I set aside my germ/hygiene issues a lot here. If I didn’t I’d lose my mind).
I noticed one of the small kids in the ‘bee’ group struggling with a knife because of his contracted dominant hand and I suddenly remembered the adaptive silverware I’d thrown into my luggage…sitting on a shelf in my office. So I brought it down to the boy who found it amazing that you could bend utensils to fit the shape of your hand – no matter the shape of your hand. The other kids were looking on eagerly so after a bit I passed the fork, knife and spoon along to others and everyone gave it a ‘go’. The best part? When one of the kids without physical disabilities was struggling to use the spoon (which was curved at a 90 degree angle at that point), the boy who first used it stopped to help her. The kid who always receives help for once had a chance to give it. And he didn’t think twice about it.
And in that small moment, I felt so full of joy and pride that I nearly cried.
But, with perfect comedic timing, I was hit on the side of the face with a big blog of honey-yogurt by someone who entirely missed the fruit bowl. And everyone laughed, including me.
That was a very good day. And I love interacting with the children but for the most part I serve an administrative function and spend my days holed up in a tiny cold office with inconsistent Wi-Fi. I am helping to develop a five year strategic plan, and am creating training programs on a range of topics for the teachers, health care staff, and (eventually) for parents.
I met with several people from the Ministry of Education who were visiting here this past week and they asked me if I would lead a round table discussion on best practices in education & rehabilitation for all 15 schools that serve students with disabilities in our region. There was no proper answer other than “Yes, I would be happy to do that” although I gulped audibly at the time. I seriously wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. I did ask to visit some of the other schools to see what they’re like. Someone said to me “Do you really want to go there? They are very sad places. I think you would not like it”. I understand that most of these schools are actually orphanages and more typical of what I was expecting to find here. But that’s exactly why I need to see them. I need to understand their needs before talking about what’s possible in terms of services and supports. The other schools are not near the city of Ternopil but are scattered in small villages throughout the region (imagine a large rural county in your state). I just discovered this weekend that there is a Peace Corps volunteer in one of these orphanages in my region and I’m hoping to start by visiting her school…and then teaming up so she can help me navigate the rest.
My office is in a wing of the school with the school psychologist, speech-language therapists, and a social worker (I think that’s her role anyway!). So it is a bright area and the children are in an out all day. I’m at the end of the hall so only really see them all if I’m passing through. Naturally I try to do that as often as possible.
It’s a cheery part of the building and has a comfy open area that offers both therapeutic and social supports. So you’re just as likely to see staff members taking a tea break together there as you are kids hanging out in their free time.
One of my favorite things are the ribbon canopies that hang from the ceiling in our wing. You can see them in some of the pics. Kids enjoy the tactile sensation of the soft ribbons and especially like lying on a giant bean bag under the canopy. It’s a little bit like a secret fort, right in the middle of school. And let’s face it: who hasn’t wanted a secret hideaway in their own workplace at one time or another.
There are lots of school events, too. So one minute I’ll be hiding in my office thinking about goals and objectives and proposal development…and then next I’m being dragged out to watch kids singing in traditional costume. I never really know what to expect so I just roll with whatever they throw at me (including honey-yogurt!).
I was just informed that next week there will be an Olympiad with various events for the kids. And I am expected to prepare my own toga for the event.
That’s right…a toga. Augh…..