It seems like every day, every agency I visit, every person I meet here in Moscow touches me in a very personal way.
My stories and the stories here in Moscow share so many common elements it is clear that we are a community, though separated by half a world for all of my life.
My family is from Chicago, and I chose to move back after law school in part to connect with parts of that family that I was separated from for 18 years. Now in Moscow I am connecting to a family that I’ve been separated for for century.
And there are two very important members of my family in Chicago that have special needs. On one side I have a cousin with serious learning disabilities, and on the other side of the family I have a first cousin once removed (yet he calls me Auntie Liz) with autism. Thanks to parents who are tireless advocates and a system that is supportive, both these cousins have achieved things that we weren’t sure was possible. My cousin with learning disabilities lives independently, has a full time job, and is engaged to be married next summer to a wonderful woman. A year ago, my cousin with autism, couldn’t look me in the eye. Days before I left Chicago, he was able to give me a tour of his favorite park, play with my mom’s dog and laugh with delight — an action that i wasn’t sure I would ever see. The prospects for children in adults with special needs in United States is boundless.
In Russia, until recently, the prospects weren’t so bright. Kids weren’t mainstreamed, kids didn’t receive supportive services, kids were hidden and were reliant on parents for their whole lives.
A unique partnership between World ORT, JDC, and JAFI is changing all of that.
ORT runs a couple of Jewish schools in Moscow with a focus on technology. I can tell you all sorts of things about how terrific the facilities and teachers are. The Hebrew lessons, the technology lessons, but that’s a story for another day.
Today, I want to tell you a story about a woman named Sofia. Sofia, a mathematician by training, was a technology teacher at one of ORT schools. Sofia had a son with autism, a son that drove a passion for serving kids with special needs. Though society was telling her that nothing could be done, Sofia spent endless hours researching autism and psychology to build a life for him. And though he still lives at home with Sofia, he’s now an adult and married and more successful than most.
But helping her son wasn’t enough for Sofia. She saw how others struggled, and worked to build a program in Moscow for other kids with special needs. The first of its kind, the first to mainstream kids with special needs yet the intellectual capacity to handle a high school curriculum. Sofia partnered with JDC and JAFI and there is now a state of the art program serving kids with autism, ADHD, emotional disorders, cerebral palsy, and other disabilities at the ORT school. Ten percent of the slots at the 300 person school are reserved for these special kids. There’s psychologists to do diagnosis and treatment. There are special aids that help the kids cope. Individual lessons are available. There’s a playroom for kids with ADHD to get some of their energy out during the day (it would be a little cruel to send them outside during a Moscow winter), parents are involved.
And the program is working. Several kids who have graduated have gone on to university. This year, the first class that started in 5th grade and will continue to 11th grade is graduating, and they have so much potential to be full, functioning, happy members of society.
Sofia told me the story of one boy named Roma. Roma is autistic but with strong intellectual capacity. Due to his autism and failure of the state system to educate kids like him, Roma was far behind in school. But Sofia saw potential, and several years ago, Roma was admitted to the ORT school as a fifth grader several years older than his classmates. Sofia showed me video and when he first started, Roma would sit to the side interacting with only his aid. Capable of doing the work, but not capable of developing relationships. Sofia showed me more video a year or two later. This time, though his aid sat in the background, Roma was part of team. He worked with the other kids to build robots in technology classes. And then there was more video of the entire class visiting Roma at his Dacha. You could see the joy in his face as the entire class streamed through his front gate.
Sofia wanted me to see Roma today, so we went to his classroom. At first Sofia though we were at the wrong room, she couldn’t find Roma. But then she spotted him. In the very front row, sitting next to another student, with his aid nowhere in sight. Other than the fact that he was a lot bigger than the other students, he looked to be just a regular member of class. We left so as not to disturb him, and found his aid waiting patiently in a room down the hall. Because though Roma occasionally need her now, he doesn’t need her to be with him every minute.
Sofia’s tireless work has paid off. Here was someone like her son, who thanks to her, was now part of the community, part of our family.
Now you might say this is only one program, touching 30 kids a year. But it touches not only the kids with special needs, but the kids in their classes who learn to respect those who are different. And maybe, five years from now, there will be a dozen programs like this in Russia. It just takes one person, like Sofia, to start a movement.