Special Hope Network is a special organization indeed! I first met Diana, one of their Zambian staff members back in 2012 and she continues to be a smiling member of their team. Over the past few years I have interacted with other Zambian staff including Milika, Dennis, Goodson, Ben, Lois, and others whose names I may not remember, but whose work is inspiring, every time I meet them. Although we missed meeting the Nelsons (who founded SHN) this year, their story is incredible and today we met Lauren and Rachel, two more of their amazing staff. Here are two student reflections of our day.
From Katy at the Garden Compound Community Care Centre:
Today was a day filled with many emotions, some of which included joy, heartbreak, anger, and hope. We were at the Special Hope Network (SHN) which is the topic that I did my presentation on weeks before we had arrived in Zambia; therefore I was fairly familiar with it. I was also really looking forward to this day since we had arrived. A little background information about SHN is that it is a place for children with intellectual disabilities. It is a place where they require the parents to bring their child so that the parents can also learn ways to educate/stimulate their children at home outside from the 6 hours a week that they will spend at SHN, which is awesome because 6 hours a week is not enough time to have focus on a child with an intellectual disabilities alone. Even though the staff is aware that it can be exhausting especially with a child that has a disability SHN aims to provide these parents with ways to make it an easier and more fun journey.
Our team split up into two groups so that we would be able to go to each community center – which are located in the compounds or high density, high poverty areas.
Entrance to Garden Compound:
Our group arrived at the second community center and when we got there we got a little more information about the views on children with disabilities in Zambia. Milika, was discussing with us how parents many times will hide their child in the house if he/she is born with a disability because people will blame them for their child being that way especially the mothers. The people of Zambia believe that if you have a child with a disability, that means that you have done something to deserve it or you are cursed. Milika was also saying that on a bus if there is a child with a disability and their parent sitting people will not sit next to them because they do not want to get to close because they might get cursed too. These parents hide their children away because they are afraid of what their friends and other family members may think of them and in this process they are giving their child no chance to grow to their greatest potential. With these situations many times the husbands will abandon their wife and child because they do not want to deal with it. It then leaves the mothers alone with a child they do not know how to care for and many times with out any form of income. So for these people at SHN to step up and reach out to these parents and let them know that they did not cause their child to have their disability and that there are things you can do to improve it and allow your child to live their life that god gave them to the fullest is a miracle and a blessing all wrapped up in a bundle to smiles.
Milika and Dennis explaining the work of SHN to our team:
Today everyone kept saying thank you to us for being here but the real thank you is not to us for one day’s worth of work but to the individuals who have dedicated their lives to these children and to the community to try and erase the stigma that there is towards special needs children. There is a long road ahead to end this stigma but with programs like SHN there is hope and that is all many of us can ask for.
Throughout the day I just kept thinking about how back home, in high school and college there are clubs that are designed just for the special needs children. People would always go up to the special needs kids and invite them to sit with them at lunch – they were some of the most well liked / popular kids at school! It is amazing to me how the mindset can be so completely opposite in another country. All day I kept thinking there must be more that we can do and how frustrating it is that we are only there for one day and don’t really get a chance to get out there and really help make this image change.
Through the week I have seen many differences between our two cultures but none of them have made me so frustrated. The only thing that makes it a little easier to sleep at night is to know that the stigma is improving and there are people like our buddies at UNZA in the field of special education that are there with the drive to make a difference in this area, and that there are people like Milika and Susan (just a few who I spoke with today) and all of the staff who are working for SHN right now and make a difference in these children’s lives everyday.
Aside from the emotional side we were able to screen around 30 kids, and got to participate in their outside playtime, and their song time. I really enjoyed my time dancing with one of the girls in the center of the circle! Made my whole day to see the kids smiling and laughing!
From Whitney at the Ng’ombe Compound Community Care Centre:
It’s hard to believe that today marks the 10th day of being in Zambia. It feels like we just got here. My room woke up at 6:30, showered, drank some coffee and got ready for our day at Special Hope Network. SHN is an organization that focuses on helping children with intellectual disabilities by helping teach their parents how to best care for them. It’s a beautiful mission! They have two centers in Lusaka where a parent, caretaker, or sibling brings the child with a disability every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for two hours. If the child and their parent make all the sessions and don’t miss more than 2 a month, they are rewarded with a food bag. We were told that this was a good incentive to make sure that parents were investing in their child and doing the best they can for them. The twelve of us split up and went to two different care centers. At the center I went to, there were only about 10 children who needed to be screened; we were expecting 45. There was one boy in particular who touched my heart. He was non-verbal, had very little control of his body, and a smile that was irresistible!! I couldn’t get enough of him. His mother was there and spoke very little English but she was able to tell me his name and that he was 9 years old. After he had been screened and it was time for them to go, as she picked him up to place him on her back, he reached his hands over to give me a hug. His mom smiled and laughed, “he doesn’t want to leave you”. I gave him a big hug goodbye and they were off. I had a wonderful 30 minutes with this boy, but I know this mom has several challenges having a son who is so involved. We come, play with the kids, hold them for a couple minutes and say our goodbyes. We are just seeing the surface level and what lies beneath are the struggles and complications that make up their reality (which is also where a lot of joy lies as well). We don’t see that, how could we in such a short time?
After we went to one of the care centers we all met up at their resource center. Here we screened a few more children and a some of the employees. Although we were warned it was going to be a crazy day, it was surprisingly laid back and not stressful at all. Once we had finished our screenings we ate lunch outside and were able to learn more about both Lauren and Rachel who work there. Rachel taught in Seattle before coming to Zambia and ended up on google looking for a place to go abroad; Special Hope appeared on the search engine and here she was. While she has been here she adopted a young boy who spends his time at the center with all the other children and has a disability as well. She plans to return to the US when the adoption is finalized so he can receive certain surgeries that are not available in Zambia. Lauren arrived in Zambia due to an organization called CLASP. She knew that the typical 10 days was too short and decided to spend a whole summer out here. That summer turned into a year. It was really wonderful to hear their stories and see a glimpse of why they decided to invest some of their lives with these children. Lunch concluded with the sound of children singing and clapping-it was outside play time! We all gathered into a circle and began singing and dancing. Each child was involved and so happy, their little smiles were enough to make me want to stay all day and learn more about each of them. Of course, with the time we have, that does not happen. We are in and out of these places so quickly and don’t have the time to get to know them all. It’s the people who move here and decide to make a new life in Zambia and all the Zambian staff who have invested their lives into helping these children that make the difference. Looking back at each place we have visited I have continued to realize just how amazing the people and their work truly is.