How does a social enterprise that aims to help children with special needs in China come to be? We sat down with ELG’s founders to hear the story, and encountered three very different individuals, who came together to revolutionize special education in Shanghai at a time when the city was working towards taking its place as one of the biggest international hubs in Asia, and special education was only just starting to develop.
Monte and Shari Rosen moved to Shanghai in 2003 with no intention of setting up Shanghai’s first and most successful special education center. They met Andrew Hill, a Minnesotan, who had been in China since the eighties. Together they started on the journey that would one day make ELG what it is today: a thriving organization that has helped thousands of children and families over the last decade; an institution dedicated to helping children and families and to being a great place to work.
A Conversation with Our Founders:
Monte and Shari Rosen and Andrew Hill
When did you first notice the lack of special education in China?
Shari: I came over thinking I would just settle in and look after the family, with nothing remotely work related on my mind. Then I ran into a woman who worked with a support group called Heart to Heart. I found that there were so many parents needing services that didn’t exist. I asked about other professionals to support these children and was told there were none.
What was it like, as a special educator, to witness the lack of services or support here?
Shari: It was so frustrating to see parents and teachers being unable to serve the needs of their children. I had my eyes widened to the needs of China and it was completely overwhelming. I started volunteering at the Shanghai Children’s hospital and I discovered that there were no other speech language professionals in the city. At the time, I was the only one. I provided training at a pediatric clinic that would diagnose children as having autism from all over China, but the problem was that there was no way to treat them. I started thinking about how I could help these children but also how to have a bigger impact on China.
Monte, when did you first become aware Shari was interested in this?
Monte: Every night Shari would come home having travelled all day from school to school, with stories of children not getting services or being stuck in classrooms. Every night she would say, “Somebody has got to do something.” I figured that it was a good time to listen to my wife.
Shari: Around this time there was a massive influx of foreigners so the international schools were no longer willing to take on children with autism or other more severe special needs. I’d been working with three boys and suddenly they all were exited from their schools. As a result, one family had to leave Shanghai and the other boys were sent far away, separating them from their parents. I was horribly disappointed and resolved to make a difference.
When did you first get the idea of starting a full-time program?
Monte: Shari kept saying someone should do something. Then in November 2005 my company told me the one year assignment I had been doing for three years had come to an end, and I should move back home. Shari said half-jokingly that I should go and she would stay, so I told her that we could draw up a business plan and see if a school was feasible. However, I quickly realized that I had no idea how to navigate setting up a business in China, getting licenses, and finding space.
Andy: The first time I’d heard about this was at a friend’s Thanksgiving party. These two had the kernel of something new and exciting, and although I knew Monte had experience out here I felt he would struggle getting things started. Then they told me they already had students lined up and I thought “this is going to be interesting.” I knew from experience that the problem with starting businesses in China is always navigating the regulations, so I was worried about that. I also feared that they were too nice for this market and could be taken advantage of by opportunists. Monte and Shari set an impossible time line for getting started but we still met it.
Tell me about your staff when you first kicked off.
Shari: We needed a director and a speech language pathologist and an occupational therapist at the minimum, as well as a few other staff. We hired one of my former students as a speech pathologist. We hired our driver and ayi. Basically, anyone suitable we met, we tried to get on board. Including our first principal, Dr. Rodney Aho.
Monte: Shari bonded with Rodney over a box of chocolate and told him about the idea before we even had a business license, and he took a huge risk with us, leaving a very cushy job in the Shanghai American School. He was a fantastic hire, 30 years’ experience and with a detailed knowledge of how to get a school to work, timetabling and the like. Plus he had a great sense of humor.
Andy: Rodney lent a lot of professionalism to the project. We were flailing around trying to get all the pieces together and he would sit in the building as a person from an international school that people could come and see. Then we met Julie through a friend – she was an experienced special-ed teacher who loved working with children. She was thrilled to find us.
Monte: One thing we were told again and again was that no one was expecting to find an organization like ours in China, and so were amazed when they found out about it. Andy hosted a Shanghai-Minnesota Club meeting. The first person I met at the event asked what we were doing. I gave him our newly printed business card, we talked for a while, and then he said, “You should talk to my wife. She has over thirty years of experience as a special ed teacher and her dream has been to live in China. Six months later Cass joined us with an amazing wealth of knowledge. We are constantly finding people who want to live in China.
What were your goals, when you first opened?
Shari: My goal was to run an amazing program that helped children, not just provided baby sitting. My passion is to make our program engaging and effective so I work closely with our staff.
Monte: I had a couple of goals – to create an organization that was not dependent on charity or government funding, to attract talent to China, train Chinese staff, and be able to work with Chinese families.
Andrew: I wanted to make a difference in China where I had been living for nearly 20 years. I love this country and see the need for services but also the potential for finding solutions.
What were the first steps in finding a location?
Andy: Some smart Chinese friends of mine told me to get registered at the district level, not the city level, where we found an incredible ally. The District Official believed in what we were doing and understood what we were about.
Monte: She later told us that when she first met us she thought there was no way it was going to happen, but after a while realized that we were serious. She had been a former teacher herself, and became a champion on our behalf.
Andy: There was no awareness, at the time, to deal with the problem. The feeling was that if a child could walk, eat and be safe, there was not much more to do for them. Of course, this has changed and China is much more aware and putting many resources into helping children.
Monte: It was evident to us, from the beginning, that we couldn’t get the approval for an NGO, so we started to set up a social enterprise. Thus began our summer of meetings. We’d come into a blisteringly hot room and Andy would talk and socialize for 45 minutes in Chinese, sometimes with our hosts smoking away. I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, so I’d just nod and try to look interested. Then they’d get down to business, again all in Chinese, and two hours later we’d leave and I’d ask Andy what had happened and he’d say “They said it is impossible.” Then we’d do it again the next day. Everyone kept saying it was impossible but we refused to give up. Eventually, we opened.
What was the first location like?
Shari: It was a villa that Andy named “South Beach” because it vaguely looked like a pastel-colored condo development you’d see in South Beach, in Miami. It was huge condo with wide open floors. We had plenty of space for offices and classrooms. The only problem was that it was a complete schlep to get out there.
Andy: What was attractive about this place was that there were no neighbors, just empty houses being held as retirement homes. But these two actually moved out there, talk about committing to a project!
Monte: We thought that moving to be near the program would be fun, a place with an awesome night life, because it is an area with many universities. Little did we know that Chinese students study all the time and go to bed at eight pm, and there was nothing for miles.
Shari: There was the promise of a Starbucks that never opened while we lived out there.
Andy: And during this whole time Shari was still working in all the schools in Shanghai, trekking half way across the city, sometimes sleeping in friend’s houses if she had an early morning in a school nearby.
What were the challenges in that first year?
Shari: It was so many things, from custom furniture to how to feed the children every day. And then there was the fact that even in the first year we were reacting to the needs of children that turned up, so constantly changing how and what we were teaching.
Monte: In the first year you’re creating everything from scratch, from marketing to purchasing policies. We had to learn a lot, fast.
What happened in the second year?
Shari: First, we moved back into center of the city, as it was just too far for us and there was more need for our services in the center. But the biggest change was that we increased our program threefold, and started doing more one-on-one therapies too.
Why did you expand your services to include more weekly therapy options?
Shari: Because the need is there. We have always tried to meet the demands of everyone we can. Sometimes, especially in medically fragile cases, we are unable to, but we are constantly working hard to try to help everyone we can. So expanding our services is what we’ve been doing since day one, and we are still doing it today.
Monte: In order to meet demand and help scheduling, we opened a second property as well, which we’ve done ever since, often running three on the go. It’s expensive, but important that we can serve people regardless of where they live in the city.
Tell me about how The Clinic came to be.
Shari: After a while there was just too much going on for us to schedule, we needed separate oversight. Once we had that in place, with a Clinic Director managing that end of things, it really took off. Since then it’s just grown and grown.
When did you move into your current building?
Andy: Out of the blue, I got this phone call from a friend saying that they’d stumbled across this place, and the moment we saw it we knew that it would be perfect. Wide hallways, soundproofed rooms, plenty of bathrooms, parking and an outside area, it really was Camelot.
Monte: Finding a location is always going to be a compromise, but our current locations tick so many of the boxes.
Let’s talk about the more recent years. What have the past 5 years been like?
Andy: We’ve just kept growing. The Clinic is as busy as ever and we’ve started a new full time program in Pudong. As Shari says, the need is there, and we have been trying to meet it.
When did you get the idea for the NGO?
Andy: 10 years ago, right from the beginning! We always wanted to help Chinese families. I remember, from the beginning, seeing how Shari would interact with Chinese children, make them smile, and I knew I wanted this to be not just a great resource for the expat community, but China as a whole. We have changed thousands of lives over the years, but the old adage of teaching a person to fish still rings true. Training local educators in special education can lead to real sustainable change and we’re excited to be bringing this knowledge to China.
To what extent do you think ELG has been a catalyst for change?
Shari: It’s not just that we’ve taught all of the children, it’s that we’ve brought so many specialists to Shanghai, both foreign and Chinese, so we have created this hub of excellence within the city. This has meant that we have provided training to many different kinds of organizations, from local clinics to the big international schools. We’ve also been a presence on their campuses, driving change from within. From professional development to the NGO, it’s a very different Shanghai to 1997, and we’ve been a big part of that.
Monte: It’s not just Shanghai that we help, we have sent out our specialists to over 70 schools in 22 cities this year alone. So we are no longer tied to just these two physical locations, but can help people all over China.
Shari: There have been so many families that have been able to come to Shanghai because of us. When we started there was just nothing here, but now we are making it possible for so many professionals in so many fields to be in China.
Andy: An important point that gets missed sometimes is we give people career opportunities. We have always wanted to build up the number of professionals working here in Shanghai, and by offering people work we are able to do that. This then helps everyone working in the sector, not just ELG.
What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve faced?
Andy: We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know what the future will bring, and sometimes we just have the wrong staffing levels. We have to try to predict what will happen, which can be a real problem. In our fourth year, we had a bunch of teachers and far fewer students than expected showed up, so we had to let some staff go. They were really excited to help children here in Shanghai, but the children just were not there. It was horrible, really cut me up. We have tried to adjust our system to accommodate this reality, but it is a pervasive problem with an organization like ours.
Shari: The challenge of working with families is that sometimes they think you will fix their child, and you’ve got to manage those expectations, which can be tough.
Monte: For me, the financial side has always been tough. We don’t take charity money and need to be sustainable, and there are times when Shari and I have had to dip into our personal savings, which is never a fun thing to do. Budgeting is such an issue, especially with the uncertainty that each year brings.
What’s your happiest memory of ELG?
Shari: There are just too many. One that comes to mind was a young lady who was selectively mute, she was here one and a half years and never spoke, and then one day she wrote in her exercise book that she was going to come in tomorrow and start speaking. True to her word, the next morning she came in and spoke to us. We were all in tears.
Monte: I’m welling up just thinking about it.
Shari: It happens so often here, a child who uses a whole sentence for the first time or makes eye contact or any one of these little milestones.
Monte: We had a child with autism who when he arrived did nothing but throw chairs. Three years later he was working in our computer lab and decided to email his father. The dad arrived astonished, and told us he never expected to get an email from his son. He said, “You gave me my son back.”
Andy: One thing I love here is the lunch area. There are all these smart, engaged, cool people in the prime of their lives helping children. It’s wonderful just to think “it worked!” It’s life affirming every day to see such a successful, professional and sustainable organization. It makes everything else in my life that much more focused. In other projects and businesses I’ve been involved in there have been a handful of happy memories. But here, there seem to be astonishing, incredible things happening every day.
Looking back over the past ten years, have you reached your goals?
Monte: I think we have exceeded our goals. When we started Shari was the only resource in Shanghai; now we have close to 30 professionals working for us and living in Shanghai. Last count, our staff come from over 19 different countries. We are supporting more and more Chinese families. And I hope that ELG is a pretty special place to work.
Andy: My dream came true of starting a real NGO to work with Chinese families and professionals. Shari and I are on the board along with seven Chinese professionals and business people. It provides a great platform to make a difference in China with ELG as a sister organization.
Shari: Definitely. We have a fantastic full time program. We are often told it is better than what some families receive in the US. We are using proven methodologies, have exciting theme based learning, and staff that are truly exceptional. We are always trying to improve but I’m very proud of what we have accomplished at The Innovative Learning Center and in our clinic.