Juan's New World :: Special Needs in Chile

Susan Vance, a WorldTeach Chile Volunteer based in Quillota, Chile shares an inspirational story about her work with a special needs student at her integrated school.

Working at Colegio Tierra del Fuego in Quillota, Chile has been more of a blessing than even I had anticipated.  As a volunteer English teacher at a school with a population of 900, grades pre-kindergarten through grade twelve, I knew I would meet a variety of students including all ages, abilities and challenges.  Some of the "special needs" include autism, Asperger’s, being paraplegic in an electric wheel chair, having Down’s syndrome, and deafness.

 Susan with some of her co-teachers
I could not have a more well-matched assignment.  My background consists of interpreting for deaf children and adults in schools, university, and the community. Needless to say, when I first walked on to the Colegio Tierra del Fuego campus, things fell in motion.  During my "observation week" (first week at school), when I was observing an English class in the computer lab, the lead English teacher informed me of the philosophy of the school, which is an "integrated" school  (inclusive of students with special needs).  Then, she pointed out that the student sitting behind me was deaf.  I turned around and asked him if he signed (signing to him).  He shook his head "no."  With writing paper and pen in hand, life changed.  I wrote notes, and then showed him his name "Juan", the sign.  He caught on right away as to what I was doing.  We mouthed words in Spanish (he reads lips some), gestured, and we had our first lesson.  For the rest of the class period, I worked with Juan as his hunger for visual language was quite evident. 

Juan's  world has changed, unfolded, opened.  Juan is discovering language that he never had before.  He is so eager to learn... we wrote down everything we discussed so that he could review his lesson.  He was surprised at how easy it was to.  We mouth the language in Spanish of course, but I use the official American Sign Language (ASL).  I never dreamed, through any stretch of the imagination, that I would be giving a deaf student in South America visual education, even though ASL has been a part of my life for over 30 years. After this event, I asked the instructor if I could give Juan ASL lessons once a week.  She was very surprised and happy that I wanted to do this, and of course, she said YES!  It is obvious to me why I am assigned to Colegio Tierra del Fuego.  "Seize the Day!"  When you see an opportunity, especially one to help others, GRAB it with all your might!!! 

Our second session was even better.  Juan had memorized everything I taught him at our first meeting--ABCs, numbers, short words.  Next, we studied "how do you say...? family members, feelings, and food."  Juan even told me about his experience with the 8.8 earthquake that occurred in Chile on Feb 27th, 2010!  He described what he had been doing, how his mother was so scared, how is "pololo" (girlfriend) was crying.  Being able to speak opened a door to Juan's world that he did not have before...  I can't express enough how thrilled I am to be an instrument in opening up Juan's new world. 

 Susan at her school

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