My name is Emily and I’m studying Special Education. I have always loved helping people in need, and as I grew older developed a passion for working with children. I remember vividly when I was nine-years-old first learning about the orphan crisis. I decided right then and there to do something about it, and have remained on that course ever since.
While my family has not personally adopted, I have two cousins from Ethiopia and have learned a lot from watching my aunt and uncle’s experience. Still, up until a year ago I was uncertain of which specific path I wanted to follow.
After graduating from high school, I decided to take a gap year. In the spring of 2017, I went to Ukraine to do a Discipleship Training School (DTS) with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Our team went and ministered in several orphanages across the country, one of which was an institution for adults with special needs. Those were my favorite days, albeit the hardest.
Within the western world, children with special needs are usually loved and accepted by their families and provided with good care. However, in Eastern Europe, Asia, and developing third-world countries, this is not the case.
If an “abnormality” is detected in pre-natal scans, when those can be afforded, the child is immediately recommended for an abortion. No questions asked, no second thoughts. If the child survives to birth, they are almost always immediately given to an orphanage. Only in rare cases have the children stayed with their biological parents.
While orphanages for younger children have better resources and can offer better care, older orphanages lack the knowledge to provide long-term care for children with special needs.
The neglect I saw in the institution we visited, where the children go when they age out of legal adoption age, was especially severe. Most of the residents, loud, rambunctious, and sometimes borderline violent, were on the mental level of children because they had not fully developed mentally.
Their caretakers often treated them as less than human and had no clue how to handle their charges. Although the situation was overwhelming at first, I gradually realized that all they wanted was to be touched and loved.
I remember going to the house where the most “violent” inhabitants were confined. One of them grabbed my arm, startling me. I didn’t know what he was going to do until I saw his eyes looking at me longingly.
He didn’t quite know what he wanted either until I gave him a hug and he instantly relaxed. It turns out, he just needed a loving touch, one which he had probably rarely received in his life.
This type of stunted growth, whether mental or physical, stems from earlier orphanages where they were mistreated. Even in an orphanage with loving caretakers and better resources, children with disabilities can still be neglected. They have trouble fitting in with their peers and growing in a healthy way.
Sometimes, the orphanage lacks the resources to help all the children learn equally. There are often not enough books, toys, or caretakers for each child to be attended to like they would in a family. As a result, children with special needs are left on the sidelines. In both the early childhood orphanages and adult institutions, this need must be addressed.
My goal is to one day go back to Ukraine and work with the communities to better their understanding of special needs. I believe that every child is entitled to an education, and the opportunity to live life to the fullest of their ability.
This is what ultimately led me to choose Special Education for my major, but this only covers the physical growth and mental learning capabilities. In communist era buildings with perfectly uniform cement rooms, fine arts is also needed to help stimulate and enrich the environment. For the brain to develop properly, fun and engaging activities are a critical part of early childhood development and growth.
Art has proved time and time again to be a valuable therapy, especially for children with special needs. For children with autism, social situations and communication can be challenging. Theater teaches useful communication skills such as speaking with volume, clarity, and confidence, as well as learning to recognize body language and emotions in themselves and others.
For non-verbal children, using art such as painting or dance can help them express how they are feeling and communicate in a way they normally cannot. Nonverbal children can often become frustrated and sometimes violent if no one understands them, and in doing theater or dance they may be able to learn how to better control their emotions without hurting themselves or others.
Theater also gives these children a purpose to live their lives and something to occupy their day. It also helps them fit in with other neurotypical children as they recognize common interests among each other. Whether through music, dance, drama, or drawing, I want to help release the creativity and passions these children have to the best of their abilities.
My hope is to have these programs grow and spread throughout Ukraine and Eastern Europe. I want to help change how people view and treat them. Beyond that, I want to teach parents how to properly care for and teach their children, so that they do not have to end up alone in the orphanages.
I want to challenge this negative view that people in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world place on special needs. I want parents to get involved and connect with their children through these programs. I want them to see their value.
I have a dream that someday, the orphanages and institutions will be for those who really do not have living parents, not as a full-time day-care. While I know that this dream is still some way off in the future, I believe that it can be accomplished in my lifetime.