This past May and June Professor Jean Golden of Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, brought 19 senior university students to Every Child Counts School (ECC) in Marsh Harbour. The students assisted in the classrooms and developed educational materials and newsletters for ECC. Before returning to Canada, the students were asked to reflect on what they learned and contributed to ECC, their main memory of Abaco and what suggestions they would make to improve the education of children with special needs in Abaco.
Michelle English, Social Work, 4th Year
At Every Child Counts, children were learning, fostering their talents and developing skills. These children face insurmountable challenges with marginalization and discrimination. ECC’s programming creates a stimulating and safe haven where children with special needs can thrive.
Ryerson students helped educate the children about their basic human rights. We covered such topics as citizenship and social responsibility, body respect, and the difference between discipline and abuse. In my class with Mr. Mars, students explored conflict resolution. My previous training in peer mediation added to this education.
My involvement with ECC helped me personally and professionally. Personally, I learned to swim alongside ECC students. This helped to increase the students’ trust and confidence in us. Professionally, I met the tireless team of social workers in the Department of Social Services and learned about the issues and challenges they face in Abaco. They manage an active caseload of up to 1000 clients and families.
I learned the ins and outs of professional fundraising and grant writing for ECC and about international human rights, Bahamian laws, and co-authored a newsletter on the difference between physical abuse and discipline.
I am proud of this international volunteer experience. I worked with many young people and developed my knowledge of disabilities. This will help me in my future social work career. I visited the Mudd and Pigeon Peas communities, where several of my students live. I saw tight knit, economically impoverished communities, struggling to survive with few resources.
The children, particularly the boys, spoke about not knowing who to look up to as mentors. The students challenged me in discussions about human rights. They did not feel their government cared about them because they did not have the basic necessities of life. It took seeing these realities to better understand how I could reframe discussions around citizenship and social responsibility. Much work is needed to ensure that children’s human rights are fulfilled for all children in Abaco.
To improve education for kids with special needs in Abaco requires awareness and education in the larger community. There are still a lot of stigma surrounding disabilities. An excellent place to start is disability education in the broader school system. Much of the experiences of discrimination and bullying that the ECC children experience, stem from the learned ignorance of children and adults.
Brittany Smith, Early Childhood Studies, 4th year
My experience in Abaco was life changing. Looking back on those five incredible weeks in Abaco I feel like I have become a better-rounded child educator and grown as a person. I learned each child with special needs at ECC is unique. Each possesses the ability to learn. A child with a disability needs to play, grow and learn as do all children. They just do it sometimes differently.
I contributed to the children’s education by teaching math skills, reading and writing, and life skills, such as using money. The children loved to sing and dance. I was able to find unique ways of adding this into the daily schedule for all children to participate.
Volunteering at ECC has impacted me by giving me the experience to work with children with special needs, as well as within a culture different from my own.
Besides the beautiful beaches, the memory of Abaco that I bring back to Canada is not the lessons and concepts I was able to teach the children I was working with at ECC, but what they were able to teach me.
The suggestion I would make to improve the education of kids with special needs in Abaco is teaching others understanding that everyone, everyday can learn. The more the general public knows about disabilities, the more accepting everyone will be, and the more help these ECC children can receive.
Peter Haastrup, Social Work graduate
I learned children with special needs, like all children, have their strengths and weaknesses, and are unique in their own way. We need to be patient and to nurture and encourage them.
I helped develop and deliver presentations on the rights of a child and on body respect. I did one-on-one mentoring and counseling of young boys and was able to use my university athletic team skills to run physical education classes.
My involvement with ECC has taught me to give back to the community and that a little time, money, and resources goes a long way in helping others. It also made me realize my passion lies with working with youths. ECC gave me the opportunity to grow within the five weeks I was there. It gave me the opportunity to build programs I am passionate about and where I can make a difference in a child’s life. It developed my professional social work skill sets. I am grateful to the ECC, the teachers, the students, community members, and my Professor Jean Golden, who invited me to participate in the project.
My experiences in Abaco were amazing. The people were really friendly, the beaches and outer cays beautiful and the social life fun. But all is lessened when you have a community of special needs kids singled out and treated unfairly.
The Bahamian government needs to pass the Disability Act and encourage inclusiveness for kids with special needs. Community members need to be educated about how children with special needs have the same rights as every other child and should not be treated as outcasts. Community members can donate their time, money, and other resources to help in the development and support of programs for kids with disabilities.
Farial Ali, Social Work, 4th year
I always knew not to pity children with disabilities, but I grasped a much deeper understanding of this concept when I finally had the opportunity to work with them. They are some of the most clever, brightest, and talented children I have known, with so much to offer to their communities and to the world. Hearts and imaginations as big as theirs should never be pitied. Just like all children, they need to be nurtured and fully supported in order to reach their full potential.
I used art as a way to connect with the students. With the support of the Art teacher, Ms. Nicole, we created an environment that promoted peace and relaxation for the students. They used art as a meditative practice to escape from their realities and tap into their creative channels. As for the older students, I helped teach them more advanced artistic methods of painting and sketching. I was involved in educating children about their human rights and the resources they have at hand to promote their well-being.
On a personal level, the experience I had at ECC, through working with these beautiful children, grounded me. It opened my eyes to the harsh realities that some of them are facing, but more importantly, their inner strength, courage, and faith taught me so much about the human spirit. These attributes were truly infectious. Things that used to bother me no longer affect me as much when I remember the strength and patience of these children.
Professionally, I learned never to give up on opportunities. Through the work of Ms. Lyn Major and everyone involved at ECC, the lesson I learned was that we need to be persistent, hopeful and keep pushing forward to create change. Never underestimate the impact of a small act or step in your journey; they will all lead to the difference you’re trying to make.
I was very lucky to have been at every major ECC event since we began at the school. With each passing day, I grew closer to my students and it meant so much to them that I was there to cheer them on. Whether it was the Torch Run, Talent Show, Play Day, the Graduation Ceremony, the Awards Ceremony, or the Special Olympics, I learned with at each event how incredibly gifted were my students. We have some amazing singers, performers, dancers, poets, and athletes in this school, and I was so grateful to have been there to witness them in their element. They inspired me.
Considering the rates of bullying, it would be great to expand education on disabilities to other schools so that children and parents all over Abaco learn to value children with special needs and appreciate the work that ECC has been doing for so many years. As for the students at ECC, it seems that there are many children that need one-on-one education or in smaller groups due to their unique ways of learning. Therefore, more volunteers and teachers at the school will improve the education level for all the students, especially if they are specialized in certain disabilities.
Denise Griffiths, 4th year Social Work
I learned that although the students at ECC are one of the most vulnerable groups with whom I have worked, they fight through the obstacles placed before them. These students show great amounts of strength, with a smile on their faces.
At ECC I organized and researched human rights for children and helped develop class presentations. I also assisted Lyn Major with office organization.
My involvement with ECC had a major impact on my understanding the complexities of issues in the Bahamas. I want to pursue international social work, to respond to the overwhelming educational and social needs as experienced by ECC.
I will hold ECC and the people in the surrounding communities close to my heart. I met so many amazing individuals who have changed my life in a way that is unforgettable.
I would suggest having more government support and resources for one-on-one discussion with the children about the issues they face daily.
Jean Golden, Professor of Sociology, Ryerson University
This May and June was the second year of a six year renewable contractual relationship between ECC and Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. This year I brought 19 student academic placements and volunteers to ECC, up from the 7 in 2013. The students assisted in the classrooms, researched and developed class presentations from human rights to anti-bullying, wrote parental and community newsletters, ran dance and physical education classes, worked in art and academic classes, assisted in fundraising, created special all day school events and attended the special Olympics in Nassau. They learned about the economic, social and political complexities of the Abaco community, the warmth of the people, the beauty of the natural environment and the realities of life for children with special needs and their families. As with the Ryerson students from last year, most did not want to leave.
I want to thank the generosity and patience of ECC principal Lyn Major, her teachers and staff extended to the Ryerson students, the wisdom of May Gottlieb to connect Lyn Major and I three years ago to begin this amazing educational journey, and, most importantly, the ECC students who taught all of us so much, the value of every human life, the beauty in human diversity, and the importance of giving back to others. These are essential lessons of human life.