I suppose it’s fitting that both my first and last blog posts about Peru have been written on planes. I’m almost through my 24-hour travel extravaganza from my Peruvian home in Cusco to my “real” home in New York, having just taken off from Fort Lauderdale. It’s hard to believe that my time in Peru and in South America is already over, but I’m excited to be heading to New Jersey today to volunteer for a week at Happiness is Camping for Children with Cancer, a camp I worked at last summer.
Overall, my time volunteering at Camino Nuevo was a good mix of challenge, learning and accomplishment. Before starting at the school, I didn’t have extensive experience working with children with special needs, but I’ve gained so much more respect for the teachers and loved ones who give so much care to these children. Whatever happens in the future, I know I’ll use the patience and diligence I gained through this experience to help me with future projects or careers.
During my time at the school, I not only learned about special education techniques for children with autism, but also children with developmental disorders that I wasn’t very familiar with. For over a week, I assisted the teachers in the classroom with the oldest students, most of whom had Down syndrome or Cerebral Palsy. I learned so much about how to engage the children, how instructional techniques vary between children of different abilities, and how to balance keeping the children safe with letting them explore. In addition, I learned so much about safe feeding techniques for children with special needs from one of the other volunteers, Vanessa, who is a speech therapist in Texas. I attended a presentation she gave to the parents and teachers, and through her demonstrations of how hard it is to chew or swallow in certain positions, I learned how important the child’s position and the techniques one uses are in safely feeding a child with special needs.
For the majority of my time at Camino Nuevo, I worked in the intermediate class with boys with autism. While getting to know the five students, I witnessed first-hand how varied the symptoms of autism can be, as there are boys who are quite social but are severely delayed cognitively, while there are also boys who are educationally on grade level but are very delayed socially. Despite the challenges, I’m glad I got to spend so much time in this classroom because I really got to know each of the boys’ habits and strengths at a deeper level.
During my last few days at the school, I was able to work with six of the boys with autism in the preschool and intermediate classrooms to evaluate their play skills. At UNC, I worked with a research project at the School of Medicine on developing play skills in children with autism. While each child with autism is different, many of them are delayed in developing a strong sense of imagination and creativity, which is why it is important to work on their play skills. In my first few days at Camino Nuevo, I noticed that the children were often given puzzles to play with, but were not given the opportunity to play with toys that would help them develop a greater sense of imagination. To help the teachers understand what level each child was at, I evaluated each of them using a method that is similar to what we use for the research project. I was able to give the teachers specific results about what play actions, which vary in level of complexity from exploratory and relational to functional and symbolic, each child completed during the evaluations. With this information, the teachers now know what actions to focus on when playing with the children in order to help them better develop a sense of imagination. In my three weeks at the school, perhaps my favorite moment was walking into the classroom after lunch and seeing that the children weren’t playing with puzzles like they normally did, but were excited to pretend to be doctors with toy stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs.
It was hard to say goodbye to all the teachers at the school, who told us how appreciative they were of all of our help and resources, but it was even harder to say goodbye to my Peruvian host family. In just three weeks, I felt like I really became part of their family because of how open and welcoming they are. I’ll definitely miss being called Sarita all the time, but I hope I’ll be able to return to Peru someday to visit them.
Well, I just dropped my water bottle and got my first strange look when I said “gracias” to the nice man instead of “thank you.” Here’s to slowly integrating back into the English language and life in the US (tax isn’t included in prices here?)