By Maxine Moleman
High School Student, Intern
To fulfill my Volunteer Work requirement, I went to Shanghai, China, the city where I lived my childhood years, from the ages four till twelve. I was very happy to be able to do my volunteer work at ELG, a social enterprise established by Monte and Shari Rosen, the parents of Sophie, one of my best friends in Shanghai. During my volunteer work I stayed with the Rosens who live in downtown Shanghai, which was wonderful.
ELG is a social enterprise dedicated to providing special education in Shanghai and other cities in China. It first started in 2006. At that time there was almost no special education available in Shanghai for expats or local families.
On a rainy Monday morning I was on my way to ELG Puxi Campus, where they have a daily program for children with special needs. Most children are on the autism spectrum, have development delays, behavior problems, learning disabilities or genetic conditions.
This was my experience.
Sitting in the back of the taxi, the driver focusing on the road, I looked outside and saw the city, Shanghai. The smog was hanging low over the city, the traffic bustling around the car. Anticipation was building up inside of me: the first time I was back since I lived in Shanghai, about 3 years ago. When the opportunity arose to do volunteer work at the Essential Learning Group, I was overjoyed. Now sitting in the car, waiting, I felt the nerves going through me. I wondered what I would do, what I would experience.
I was greeted by Carolyn, the Innovative Learning Centers lovely administrator and taken on a tour to see the school. I heard the chattering of kids in the cafeteria and was asked to join a few kids at a table, to enjoy snack time with them. The kids introduced themselves to me, one by one. Most of them were shy when they said their names and how old they were. ‘Hi, my name is Abby, and I am 14.’ I met Abby, Andy, Lianne and Ella. These were the four kids with whom I was going to work with over the next few days.
I spent the first day observing the kids, how they had their class and how they interacted with the teachers. They were four amazing kids, each with their own characteristics, their own background, different cultures and countries, and learning disabilities. I also met the great program staff, Miss. Tiffany and Miss. Letizia, for both of whom I developed a great admiration.
The next day I woke up at 6:30 am. Shari and I grabbed a cab to get to ELG. At the center we got a cup of coffee, which I desperately needed due to my jet lag. I greeted the kids at the door, and because it was raining they got to play in the library instead of going outside until it was time to go to the program rooms. I surveyed the library and ended up playing air hockey with Andy, losing 4-10.
We then spent the morning working on reading and writing skills. Halloween was coming up, so everything was related to Halloween. We had lunch and a break and then in the afternoon the kids had to do math. I got to help Leanne with her math. I explained the math theory to her so that she would understand it. It was really great getting the close up experience of teaching one of the students, you realize how difficult it is for some of them to process the information straight away, and you learn that patience is the key to helping them understand it. The kids left to go home, and I spent some time helping Miss. Letizia and Miss. Tiffany with their after-hours work.
I spent the next two days observing the lessons and helping more and more with teaching the kids. I got to know more about the kids and their learning disabilities, and my understanding of how it affects them in life deepened. As I connected more with the kids, I learnt about their habits and their likes and dislikes. I also got to know the staff better, especially Tiffany. She was open and so friendly from the start; I don’t think I have ever met anyone as optimistic and happy in her work as her.
At one point while I was about to give one of the kids another math lesson, I turned to look at her and I saw that she was a little twisted, and trembling. I knew straight away what was happening: she was having a seizure. On my first day at the school, I was given instructions in case this would happen. Straight away, when I noticed her trembling, I called out to Miss. Letizia. She immediately understood what was happening and she headed straight to us. I, in the mean time, ran to the office to get the kit. While this was happening, Miss. Tiffany directed the rest of the kids to one of the other classrooms to play a game. Though this was a very peculiar situation, I didn’t panic, I just knew I had to get the kit, and stay calm. I have never actually been in such a position before, but to know that I can keep my head cool at such a time, I learned something new about myself.
The next day was Friday, but not just any Friday, it was Halloween! Everyone had been excited and buzzing about it all week. Our class even made a ‘pumpkin planet’ to celebrate the day, as the theme that month was Outer Space. We were all very proud of the final outcome of the pumpkin planet. I dressed up as a unicorn, wearing a bright blue unicorn onesie as my costume. The kids arrived, all in costume, all excited to celebrate Halloween. We spent the morning trick-or-treating down the halls and doing fun Halloween games. We also had an assembly to give out the prizes for the best costumes.
In the afternoon there was also a meeting with all the therapists, teachers, Shari, and the parents to discuss one of the kids. This meeting was a wonderful, very informative opportunity to see the way that therapists, teachers and parents discuss and work together setting goals for the child to make sure she would grow and learn in the best way possible. To me this was very eye opening and it made my experience even more invaluable. To see what happens behind the scenes and experience how professionals work together to help this child was inspirational, and it gave me an even better insight in what special education is about.
After the meeting all the staff had a staff party, where they too gave prizes for the best costumes. Then sadly it was time to say goodbye. It was hard because I really had connected with the people here. Everyone was so delightful, and open, I really felt like a part of their community.
I am so lucky to have had this opportunity and experience. To do volunteer work in China for school – not many people get this chance. It was not only that it was in China, the country where I lived for so many years; it was also the fact that it was such an amazing place where I learned so much. It opened my eyes to what is out there and got me thinking of my own future, maybe in this field of work. I also got a taste of what it is to be a ‘teacher’. I was allowed to go to the break room and use the printer; I saw the kids looking up at me like I was this authority figure… All I can say is that I’m really grateful for this opportunity!