Article by Lionel Rakai
Sitting in the teachers office, notebook in one hand whilst the fingers of the other feathered over the last page of questions I had diligently prepared the night before in an attempt to maintain a sense of professionalism and respect for the place I was sitting, I looked up to Anya, a teacher and the recipient of all my inquiries and confessed the interrogation was over. She smiled with a grin of curiosity and posed a question to me: What made you decide to visit here today?
“Here” was a home for orphans, a safe environment established to offer disabled youth and adolescents currently ranging between the ages of 11 and 22 with not only a safe growing environment but also the basic skills for surviving with ones self and the outside world, social interaction and working skills in an effort to allow them to enjoy an equal chance of living. Titled the Agape Warrior House, the establishment imprinted an objective of developing and implementing a training program for boys and girls to improve their quality of life and provide an ability to integrate well into society. The mission statement ends with a clearly important note “discover their personal value and live a life of dignity”. Founded in 1994 by a group of foreign volunteers under the English Language Association, the Agape community association established the Warrior House program ten years ago in Xi’an.
Part shelter and part vocational program, it consecutively builds a working relationship with the government run children’s welfare centre where teachers have an active duty time between 8AM to 5PM on weekdays. Five teachers distribute and delegate tasks between each other to support a one-on-one teaching method amongst the existing fourteen students admitted to the program. They provide educational support for personal and communal safety along with common sense practices. While the teachers strive in an effort to balance quality teaching time and interactions between each student, voluntary support is always welcomed. Currently, food and living supplies are received in the form of donations from individuals and local companies where needed, sometimes shared via volunteers and staff social media during cases of shortages. Distributed between three apartments, there is one classroom and office space for learning, a girls living apartment and a boys living quarters.
Making my way to the orphanage by bus number 5, which departed from the Shaanxi history museum, I arrived at the Shijia Xingcheng stop located at just a two minute walk to the community housing the apartments for the Warrior House. Anya and a company of excited, innocent young smiles greeted me at the entrance, instantly sheathing me with a blanket of warmth, momentarily forgetting the chill of the winter morning. Entering the training centre, we followed the precautionary measures for COVID-19 such as washing and sanitising our hands, followed by a temperature check by the staff before walking into the staff room for introductions and a brief interview. Decorated by the entrance of the staff room hung an organisation board with a print out of Individual Support Plans (ISP) for each student, illustrating their specific needs, areas of interest, daily schedules and behavioural procedures.
Born in Weinan and now living in Xian, Anya gained experience working as a teacher at the Confucius Language Institute in the United States for two years before returning to Xian and engaged in a program that housed babies fostered for adoption before later moving to the Warrior House program prior to the pandemic in late 2019. She mentions that it is important to keep in mind as a volunteer that though their learning ability may be slower than other adolescents of a similar age, with added physical disabilities, they are still infants with childlike curiosity and teens facing everyday teenage problems like puberty, first crushes, and confidence fears. We sat down in the teacher’s office, where I preceded to open my notebook of questions and commenced an information heavy conversation.
Question: Let’s talk about the children currently admitted to the program. What can you tell us about them?
Currently, four kids come from the local community, including two afflicted with cerebral palsy, resulting in the inability to control hand movements or walking ability (aided by a wheelchair). The other children had transitioned from social welfare services in search for a more practical development environment after feeling obscured by the challenges of growing up and failing to adjust to the idea that the early bird gets the worm. Consequently, the students develop a personality of always trying to please teachers to feed a craving for attention, acceptance, and a sense of family love that they instinctively pursue. In retrospect, I personally once considered ignorance to the world’s troubles and the unkindness of people as a way of holding on to my innocence but in reality kindness needs to be balanced with a sense of maturity and mindfulness.
Christine, a teenage girl confined to a wheelchair suffers from cerebral palsy with sight weakness while a teenage boy named Sam lives with blindness. Being of a similar age, they grew a bond of friendship in the program and discovered a way to help each other out. Christine offers her frail sense of sight with Sam offering the strength of his limbs to enjoy the small things we can sometimes take for granted like the smell of fresh air when walking through the park in spring. We had the opportunity to be spectators as Sam offered to expose his talent of playing the piano and mastered through a piece of “Silent Night” with confidence.
Question: How are students prepared for the real world? What is your experience with children who struggle to find a place in society?
A lesson plan is created for each individual and organised in the form of daily tasks, tasks that the average person may not take a second thought such as how preparing oneself in the morning for the day can feel like an uphill battle to some of these youngsters. It can include lessons like counting money, identifying colours of the traffic light, or memorising the names of food and vegetables. Students with higher learning abilities focus on vocational training that apply to the type of future work they aspire towards and would consider making money independently from, for example, making bracelets by hands, handicraft and art. The learning goals for each student are designed with the input of the students themselves through understanding their likes and passions.
An example of a goal divided into lesson tasks for a semester could read as follows:
Goal: Visiting the supermarket.
- Understand the traffic rules as a pedestrian such as learning street sign characters and symbols or stopping and walking at a crossing.
- Learn the correct bus station to wait at and the correct bus number to take.
- Remember the stop counts for arriving to the right destination.
- Discover where to find items in the supermarket.
- Reading prices and/ or asking for assistance, then paying for items.
- How to return home.
Students are prevented from going outdoors without supervision or community support for their own well being and to maintain a comfortable environment surrounding them. Each child encapsulates a fragile heart which by default expects kindness from strangers and a belief in the goodness of everyone even though sometimes people can look down on them. To that end, they sometimes need reassurance on the importance of learning when and how to offer ones trust.
Anya explained that between genders, it can sometimes be harder for boys when preparing for life in the outside world as they hold the pressure of having to build a new family while maintaining the ability to provide financially for the household.
Question: What effects do the volunteers have on the children? Is an emotional bond developed?
The students deeply appreciate visitors, they make conversations in the hopes of sharing their hobbies that offer something different during their daily routines. They connect with the interactivity and embrace the feeling of being heard.
I spent time sitting and listening to Lele, a teenage boy and one of the senior students in the group, who tried to teach me how to whistle (to my failure), offering encouragement as he listed his favourite English words from memory, sang some of his favourite songs, including one in the local Shaanxi dialect, and then showing me his favourite spots in the classroom with an eagerness to provide me a personal tour of their classroom. There was a feeling in my heart as he strung together the sentence “I like your company”.
Using the little knowledge of Chinese language in my arsenal, I was able to sit and offer guidance as a young girl with Down’s Syndrome filled her activity sheet by identifying and accurately writing down the count of flowers and butterflies illustrated on the page.
Essentially, the most valuable thing a volunteer can offer is their company and quality time spent to talk and listen to their stories.
To add on to her weekday efforts, Anya started an individual initiative involving taking children for weekend outings, such as visiting the history museum and local scenic spots, learning to cook new dishes or having a hotpot meal together. Some weekend activities for girls in particular included sleepovers, learning to apply makeup together, and trying nail art.
Question: What are some of the difficulties faced by the staff?
Teachers educate and prepare themselves by watching online training videos and reading experiences from research students published in the field of special education. Training videos often show classroom environments that have more resources unavailable to the center and often involve sessions like speech therapy and music therapy. As a result, the staff continuously educate themselves in an effort to offer similar remedial therapies without the same resources.
Through experience, they grasp the importance of demonstrating boundaries to the students in terms of respecting personal space and taking care of one’s own belongings, monitoring and controlling the possibilities of self harm and improving the level of sensitivity. A reward system is further applied by the teachers to alleviate bad habits.
Question: What advice would you give for people who are eager to help in a hands-on approach by donating their time? What does one need to learn before volunteering?
The role of a volunteer is to be a supporter, helper and aid in building an encouraging environment, keeping in mind that these children hold the hopes of growing up to live an independent life. This involves standing up for themselves whilst being able to support themselves.
The orphanage answers the following tips for volunteers:
A. What should we know about these students?
The students need compassion and support during a time they have entered adolescence and carry a psychology that reflects the same as a normal child. In essence, though they require special needs, they have more similarities than differences when compared to other children in similar age groups.
B. How should we interact with the students?
A volunteer should learn and understand the practiced teaching process through demonstration and step-by-step teaching with clear instructions holding high importance. Based on the variable of the students situation, making use of numerous sensory and systemic reactions is helpful paired with a mindfulness of time control, while maintaining a solid rhythm for interaction.
In the face of student behavioural problems, one must be rational and objective. Sometimes students can deliberately attract your attention so they should be corrected in time and be educated to understand the boundaries of belongings.
C. What is the procedure if a volunteer wants to offer something extra in the form of a gift or a meal?
If you want to give gifts to the students, if students ask for something and you are willing to buy it for them, or if you are willing to take the students for an outing; please ask the teacher first. If you want to share photos from your camera or phone, it is essential to get advice from the teachers first as well.
D. How can volunteers support teachers rather than interfere?
Volunteers should corporate with teachers during the teaching and interaction process by understanding the teachers own professional teaching plans. Behavioural problems should be reported to the teacher in time. Remember that teachers will stay with the students longer and will have developed a deeper understanding of each student. A teacher will offer their help in the form of initialising an introduction and creating a comfortable interaction and is always willing to help you with your volunteer work.
Question: How do you volunteer or otherwise help?
· Come and visit the Warrior House by placing an appointment before visiting through the office number 029-85453877. The orphan’s home is located at Shi Jing Xing Qing Cheng E Building No. 63 Unit 1 – Room 101.
· Any kind of donation/ help is welcomed. This can include food and living supplies, stationary, and teaching aid, special education training and/or resources, money etc.
· If you need information about openings regarding job vacancies or work opportunities for people with special needs please contact the office number to enquire.
At the end of my stay, they had a question for me: What made you decide to visit here today?
A year ago, my answer would have been this; since High school, we were always encouraged to offer volunteer efforts to services in need of it. These included homes for special needs like housing for the elderly, handicapped youth, and animal shelters. Since moving to China I may have lost some identity of charity and my eagerness to recollect it was awoken when meeting one of the Warrior House teachers during a weekend photography group activity. Upon further reflection, due to the negative reverberations of this year, I seem to have also lost empathy and sympathy for others, something I had unconsciously offered so easily in the past, and thereby embraced this opportunity to revive that personality trait.
By spending time with the students and teachers at the Warrior House, I resigned from selfish objectives and managed to learn new things with an open mind. Not only have I been clarified with the importance of being self-educated in the preparation of offering volunteer support to an organization for children with special needs, but I also added self-awareness in the discovery of empathy and how much the gift of compassion can bring so much joy to another.