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In 2011, Ryerson University of Toronto, Canada began a collaborative educational relationship with the Every Child Counts (ECC) School for children and young adults with special needs in Abaco. For five years Professor Golden of the Ryerson Sociology Department has brought over 100 Ryerson University student academic placements and volunteers to Abaco to assist ECC School in its educational work.

Lessons from Ryerson University Students at Every Child Counts

In 2011, Ryerson University of Toronto, Canada began a collaborative educational relationship with the Every Child Counts (ECC) School for children and young adults with special needs in Abaco. For five years Professor Golden of the Ryerson Sociology Department has brought over 100 Ryerson University student academic placements and volunteers to Abaco to assist ECC School in its educational work.

In turn, ECC assists Ryerson students in their professional development as Early Childhood specialists, Social Workers and community leaders. This educational relationship has been built on mutual respect and trust.

The Early Childhood Studies placement students bring their training in disabilities, classroom teaching and curriculum development to the ECC classroom. Social Work students bring their strong skills in research and report writing. Ryerson students learn about teaching children with disabilities, with limited financial resources, in the Bahamas.

This educational collaboration has been a journey of heart for the Ryerson students and Professor Golden at an exciting time of the emergence of disability rights in the Bahamas.  During these years, the Bahamas government introduced the new Disability Act and established the Disability Commission. Prime Minister Christie visited an ECC graduation and spoke of ECC as the model for the education of students with special needs in the Bahamas.

One of the ECC teachers, Ms. Vernelle Carey sits on the Disability Commission and Ryerson students assist her and the Commission with research.  The documentary film about ECC was produced by Wendy Loten, a graduate of Ryerson University, and has won international awards.

The film is now shown biweekly on Cable Bahamas.

In February of 2015, Professor Golden developed and co-taught, with 26 Abaco community leaders and Professor Keithley Woolward of the College of the Bahamas, an intensive university credit course ‘International Community Engagement’.

The Ryerson placement students have delivered projects for the ECC School, ranging from curricular development in Human Rights and Physical Education to social media use, and arts and dance. They have assisted the teachers in the classroom with academic and life skills. They assist with the Special Olympics, student testing, yearbook design and production, the ECC Archives and the development of a transitional living Centre for young adults. What needs to be done, they do in May and June every year. Two of the social work graduates now legally work at ECC.

Ryerson students have learned much about the extraordinary commitment of the ECC teachers and volunteers and of Abaco community support. Their experiences in ECC and Abaco reinforce for them the value of every human life, the beauty in human diversity, and the importance of giving back to others. As Professor Golden wrote many years ago, “It is a joy for me personally, as their teacher and mentor, to have been part of this collaborative learning process in Abaco”

Here are some reflections of this year’s Ryerson students on ECC, Abaco and what they have learned.

 

Vivian McCaulry, Ryerson Social Work student:

What did you learn about ECC School and children with special needs in Abaco?

Imagine a child in school who is unable to speak or communicate. Like all little boys he wants attention but the only way he knows to connect with people is to be silly. At Every Child Counts school I met this child and the wonderful teachers were open to any ideas to help. My past experience with people with developmental delays was in an integrated musical theatre program. I decided to try music. I played music for him and gradually he let me know what he wanted to hear. By the end of my placement he put on an air band show for the teachers. Although he and I still were not able to communicate effectively through conversation, he was able to connect with the teachers and me through music and laughter.

Every Child Counts is a special school for children with physical and developmental challenges. It is a place where students are supported to let their light shine, including for me as a Ryerson Social Work placement student. The teachers are wonderful in helping me to learn how to support these children. They are open to suggestions. It is remarkable what the school has been able to achieve and the environment they have fostered that makes every child feel accepted and welcomed. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to learn at the school.

What did you learn about Abaco?

Waking up every morning and opening my curtains to the sand, palm trees and shimmering water behind them was one of the amazing privileges I will miss the most. During the week we explored Marsh Harbor and got accustomed to the upbeat Soca music and fresh conch salad. On weekends my fellow placement students and I set out to explore as many beaches and towns as we could before our time on this beautiful oasis was up.

We ran along vast open sand and water in Green Turtle Cay. We walked through rows and rows of colorful historic homes in Man-O-War, then took a break to cool down at the beach. In Treasure Cay we marveled at blue water with pigment that seemed almost artificial. Our visit at Hope Town took us up the light house and left us beaming as we saw the stunning view of the boats floating in the harbor below and the ocean behind them. I visited two churches and got to experience the love that many Bahamians have for God and the passion they have for spreading God’s word. I have learned through conversations in town about the fishing culture and the love of spear fishing in the Abacos.

I will miss the friendly faces always saying good morning and good afternoon as we pass. Abaco is a beautiful place and I will be sad to leave, but excited to return in the future.

 

Celia Le, Ryerson Social Work student

What did you learn about ECC School and children with special needs in Abaco?

I learned the vision of  Every Child Counts is to support and build an environment in which students with different abilities are encouraged to reach their full potential. ECC is the ony school in Abaco that speciaizes in teaching children and young adults with disabiities. It has been in operation since 1998.

I learned the ECC landand the original building weredonated by the Catholic ArchDioceses and most of the buildings built by volunteers. ECC is funded primarily through individuals and foundations. Recently the Bahamian government has provided some financial support for two teachers’ salaries.The school pays school tuition fees of economically disadvantaged families.

ECC has grown tremendously since 1998. The school has over 20 teachers and teacher  assistants, 100 students, a small administrative staff and a large number of local and international volunteers and specialists. ECC offers a variety of programmes from academics and creative arts to the development of life skills and vocational training.

What did you learn about Abaco?

I learned Abaco is known as the sailing and cruising capital of the world. There are many sailing competitions attended by yachts people and fishing enthusiasts. The Abaco islands consist of two main islands and several outer cays. We have visited Elbow Cay, Green Turtle Cay, Man O War Cay, Great Guana Cay, Treasure Cay, and toured Abaco itself.

 

Chris Munro, Ryerson Social Work student

What have you learned about ECC and children with special needs in Abaco?

During my stay in Marsh Harbour, I had the privilege of working with the Every Child Counts School for children with special needs. I was delighted to find a warm and welcoming staff and student body. Working like a cohesive family, the school uses an empowering model mixed with a genuine concern for all members’ welfare and success in their academic and behavioural endeavours. Funded primarily through donations, the school provides an essential service for many children in the Abacos, who otherwise would not fare well in the regular school system.

What have you learned about Abaco?

Working with the ECC School highlighted the need for governmental involvement within this sector. Surviving on donations, Every Child Counts would benefit immensely from a guaranteed governmental budget stream, which would secure both staff and facilities to continue developing an enriched scholastic environment for the children.

I learned the Bahamian government, in passing the Disability Act in 2014, has not yet acted on all the statutes of the law. In particular, part 3 of the Act (Rights of Persons with Disabilities – section 15 part A and C. 2014), states “The Minister… shall design, collaborate and implement programmes that provide – (a) “Persons with disabilities to be engaged as apprentices or learners.” Section 33 of the Act (Special Education) outlines the government’s responsibility to establish programs and separate schools for those requiring accommodations due to living with disabilities. I have not found evidence of these mandates have been implemented in the educational system. ECC is the educational home to many individuals living with disabilities but some students travel for hours to and from ECC from places like Green Turtle Cay and Sandy Point.

 

Joanne Anastasakos, Ryerson Social Work student

What did you learn about ECC School and children with special needs in Abaco?

I have learned ECC fills a gap in services and supports offered to students living with disabilities in the Abacos. The school plays a fundamental role in the lives of these children with special needs from past exclusion to integration within the school and the Abaco community. ECC creates an environment in which their students are able to thrive and succeed. ECC fosters healthy relationships, appreciation of others and self- esteem.

I learned children with special needs can be independent and learn self-sufficiency, once they are given the appropriate resources and supports. Every day I saw the self-determination of ECC students to reach their full potential and overcome barriers. Special needs can be challenging for these children and young adults.

What did you learn about Abaco?

I was privileged to have the opportunity to explore Abaco. I am grateful for being welcomed into the community and immersed into the deep and rich history of Abaco. From Green Turtle Cay to Little Harbour, I traveled to various towns and cays and was absorbed into the beautiful culture of friendliness, song, food, and dance.

 

Olivia Saric, Ryerson Social Work student

What have you learned about ECC and children with social needs in Abaco?

My work at ECC has taught me a great deal about the school and its students. ECC works very hard to provide quality education to its students. It offers multiple programs geared towards academic and vocational skills development. I have seen the outcome of their hard work and dedication. It has made a positive impact on the students. This positive impact is mutual. While the students grow and flourish within this fostering environment, the teachers, staff, and administration are exposed to the love, warmth and genuine happiness of their students.

I learned that students and adults with special needs in the Bahamas have tremendous strength, vigor and spirit. They do not let circumstance inhibit their will to learn, achieve, and succeed. Disabilities can be challenging. The students at ECC have taught me it is that it can be a gift to see the world in a different way. When offered the opportunity these students have proven that they can overcome adversity and live fully.

What have you learned about Abaco?

I have been afforded the opportunity to learn about the rich history and culture of the Abacos. Over the past two months I have travelled to some of the surrounding islands. I’ve seen the towering lighthouse in Hope Town, explored the streets of Man-O-War, seen the beautiful beaches on Green Turtle Cay and visited historic homes on Cherokee Sound. Not only is Abaco a beautiful place with pristine beaches, reefs and wildlife but is also considered the boating capital of the world. With its unique blend of locals, tourists, and visitors, Abaco offers a dynamic and engaging environment in which to live. Abaco has grown to house thousands of people all of whom have come together to create an enriched community that values kinship, religion, and positive change.

 

Sheridan Smith, Ryerson Social Work student

What have you learned about ECC and children with special needs in Abaco?              

My experience working at ECC has taught me a lot about children with disabilities. I realized the stigma associated with people with special needs is unfounded. People with disabilities are seen as being limited in what they can do. The children at ECC showed me every day that they are not limited. Whether it is mobility or learning disabilities, these children do not allow these differences to come in the way of how and what they learn and do. They find a way to adjust to be the best they can be.

When I first came to ECC I met a student wheelchair bound. I started to feel badly for him as most of his peers were able bodied. He taught me he was like the other students. He learned and was mobile in his own way, with a little help for all of us. I no longer feel badly for him. I see him for who he is.

The unique approaches to how ECC is structured allows the children to excel. The students learn to help and respect one another. The school has the staff expertise to give the students a better opportunity to reach their full potential. ECC teachers can focus on assisting all students with special needs, compared to other schools in the community.

What have you learned about Abaco?

This small part of the Bahamas has a lot of political and social layers in island life and work. I was able to learn about Abaco by talking to community members and visiting the outer Cays. During the two months, Ryerson students had conversations with community members who are associated with and have knowledge about various social and political issues in Abaco. One of the topics that stood out to me was the discussion around The Peas and The Mudd. We learned the dynamic between the Bahamian and Haitian populations. Many students at ECC are from these neighbourhoods. It was important to learn about this cultural and political dynamic to understand the students.

Another aspect that differs from Canada is the small size of the island and population. In Abaco it is easy to know majority of the people. I was able to meet a lot of people and realized the connections between them. This is an interesting dynamic because anonymity is something that we take for granted when being from a large city like Toronto.

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