Partner Recap from Kenya!

By Pooja Panesar, the founder of Kaizora Consultants, Global Autism Project’s partner in Kenya

The SkillCorps team has just left after a fantastic 2 week training period. We did so much this trip… as we always do! We worked on increasing the children’s manding skills and a system to follow up (sustainability is the core we follow with the teams), and for the second week we worked on the skills analysis section of the VB-MAPP. This was a great follow up to the last SkillCorps visit when we worked on the milestones sections of the VB-MAPP. We went through the process of testing, observing, and also of translating all the results onto the student’s programs and what they should be working on.
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As I always feel, the individuals who came for the trip were amazing. Always eager to do more, pitch in more, and share their expertise in every aspect. It’s always great to have a team with a variety of skills… those ranging from directors who own their own organization to those still studying to become BCBA’s. Everyone always has something to contribute and something to learn from us as well. The relationships formed with my amazing staff was also really encouraging to see. We teamed up a member of SkillCorps with a member of Kaizora and the teamwork and the way they get along to go that extra mile is very heart-warming.

I must also add that I am extremely proud of my staff and the way they take on the extra work we like to compress into this time period. They are usually exhausted at the end of the 2 weeks, but very grateful for all they learn. It’s a great exposure to the international community of ABA and with each trip from SkillCorps they get more insight into that community!

Thank you to Global Autism Project for all the ongoing hard work for all the partners you support, and thank you to my team for always being so welcoming and accommodating!

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Exciting Things on the Horizon!

Over the last few weeks, things have been ramping up at the Global Autism Project office. Some major things are on the horizon!

First off, Modify Watches has extended a unique opportunity for collaboration. Part fundraising, part sassy watches – Modify Watches has created custom Global Autism Project watches for sale on their website. Check it out – and grab yours today! 50% of the profits go towards the mission of the Global Autism Project.

Modify has even sweetened the deal with a coupon code for our supporters:
20% off with code NAMASTE through September!

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Next – and all the more exciting, Microsoft currently has a contest running to pinpoint a global nonprofit organization which is upgrading their world. Voting for the Global Autism Project is easy! Here’s how:

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Got it?  #vote #upgradeyourworld @GlobalAutismProject
… So easy!

And finally, we recent launched Compass, a new initiative giving donors a unique opportunity to follow their dollar through an online portal unlike any other. Join Compass with a monthly donation to receive access to behind-the-scenes footage, updates, and photos from our partners and SkillCorps teams! Read on to get started.

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Keep your eyes on Global Autism Project for exciting updates from the field and from our Brooklyn office!

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Goodbye

By Jacob Sadavoy, a member of the August 2015 SkillCorps Team in Kenya

Today is the last day at Kaizora; it is bittersweet. I’m disappointed that I will not have the opportunity to assess the effectiveness of the recommended interventions and I will greatly miss collaborating with the staff and playing with the students. The necessary part of leaving, which is why this moment is bittersweet, is to ensure that Kaizora can grow independently devoid of outside support and resources; as a result, SkillCorps must be a time limited support system.  From the beginning of this adventure,  SkillCorps has preached the need for this project to be sustainable. The likelihood  of all of the recommendations being realized is small. However, being involved in building Kaizora’s foundation will be a source of pride when I reflect on my career as a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst.

Being here, in the only Applied Behaviour Analysis centre in Eastern Africa, is surreal. I believe Kaizora will grow into something special because of the staff’s desire for professional growth, thrill discussing the science of behaviour, and their devotion to their students. I have learned over these past two weeks that patience with a process like this is the only way for sustainability to be possible. Kaizora is not going to look like a state-of-the-art North American ABA centre overnight. Having them evolve in to an exemplary centre on their own is the greatest gift SkillCorps can give.

Thank you for this experience. Next stop Kilimanjaro….

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Thirty-Five Years Later

by Karen Bennett, a member of the current SkillCorps Team in Kenya

35 years ago in 1979, I came to Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  After a 29 hour Pan Am flight through West Africa, on a plane with approximately 300 volunteers, my first view outside of the airport, was a giraffe standing in the distance.  The Nairobi National Park was next to the small Jomo Kenyatta Airport.  My first thought was how beautiful it was and how tired I was.  We then traveled, fairly fast, to the places we would stay for the first two months of training.  As we drove to the New Continental Hotel in Westlands we were fortunate to be driving on a semi-paved road and around one round-a-bout.  From the bus and through the semi-darkness, I could see the beautiful landscape of acacia trees, open spaces and a clear view of nothing except the giraffe and the city of Nairobi.   The view of Nairobi was of several tall buildings: the Thorn Tree Hotel where we would go for tea and do the crossword puzzles as well as leave messages for fellow travelers to this fairly unknown place and the large government buildings such as the convention center.  Since it was evening, there were quite a lot of people walking to and fro, appearing to return home from wherever they had been.  There were large buses with people jammed in so tight it was difficult to see through to the other side of the bus.  There were matatus with so many people crammed into them that I wondered how they would possibly be able to get out.  I would live in this beautiful and awe inspiring country for the next 7 years.  2 of those years were spent teaching at The Jacaranda School, one of the few if only school for students with special challenges.

Jump forward to 2015 when I returned to Kenya as a volunteer for the Global Autism Project.  Through my 3 plane rides and a 2 day stopover in New York, my thoughts were that I would be coming back to a country that I had loved those many years ago.  I thought often of the picture of the giraffe in the distance, the open spaces and the crowded buses and matatus and thought that would be what I was returning to.  Needless to say how wrong I was.  Whether for the good or bad my first view of Kenya was not of a giraffe in the distance but a metal wall surrounding buildings under construction.  There were no buses that I could see, but still the matatus both small and large.  There were no people crammed into them but everyone had their own seat.  There were no loud horns blowing or people banging on the roof of the matatus to attract the visitors to their mode of transportation but people standing and waiting quietly or on their cell phones.  They were waiting for the matatus, private cars and taxis to come to them.  The road was paved and the round-a-bout was still there, which I did recognize.  That was all I was to recognize.  I did not recognize the billboards especially the neon ones advertising things like cell phones, new apartments, land or houses to buy.  I did not recognize the buildings and construction so close to the highways as we drove around the city to get to The Karen Inn and Suites in Karen.  I did not recognize the Westin Hotel that was surrounded by beautiful vegetation and sparkling lights on the trees.  I did not remember the semi-conscientious drivers driving in their lane on a 2-lane highway. I did not see the multitude of people walking on or at the side of the street trying to get to where they were going.  As we were riding in the taxi, I tried desperately to see something that I had recognized from those wonderful days of living in Kenya so long ago.  As we arrived at the Inn, needless to say I saw nothing of what I once saw when traveling in those crowded buses and matatus.  I would live in this awe-inspiring and quickly progressing country for the next 2 ½ weeks.  2 of those weeks volunteering in the remarkable, one of a kind school for students with intellectual challenges.

The opportunity to be a part of Kaizora, is a chance to see how far the country has progressed in educating all their students.  I wish to thank Pooja and her wonderful staff for accepting me and the Team as one of their own and especially the opportunity to work again with the smiling faces of Kenya.

The Kenya I once knew is gone, at least in Nairobi and Karen.  Whether for the good or not so good, I have returned to a country that I had truly loved and will start to love again.

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SkillCorps Kenya: Update on Week 1 and a Visit to the Elephant Orphanage

By Jacob Sadavoy, a member of the current SkillCorps team in Kenya

I am scrolling through my vocabulary trying to come up with a word to sum up my experience after 3 days in Kenya and, after ten minutes, I concede. In such a short period of time I have experienced a myriad of emotions which has left me contemplative and speechless; for those that know me; speechless is not a common trait.

Before I begin sharing anecdotes, I am so humbled and grateful to my wonderful, supportive sponsors. I would not be here if it were not for their generosity. THANK YOU! I am also so fortunate to be a member of a gifted eclectic team that share a similar passion in Applied Behaviour Analysis. A little overwhelmed with gratitude as I write this underneath my mosquito net.

FUN FACT ALERT ~ Our wonderful group leader gives us fun facts so I thought I would pay it forward and share one she shared with the team. The reason why mosquitos prefer biting some people other than others is because we have varying octenol levels in our blood. So Mom, who I am sure will be reading this, moskeets like me best because my blood has more octenol and because it is sweeter too.

I arrived in this marvelous country Saturday night and being blessed with the ability to sleep on planes and inability to get jet lag (two facts that are likely related); I was able to appreciate the beauty of Karen, Kenya instantly. On Sunday, the team went to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Orphanage where we saw 28 orphaned baby elephants, a genetically blind Rhinoceros, and two ostriches (who were honourary members in the elephant’s entourage) who were all saved from the wild and nursed to health. The circumstances in which made them orphaned is depressing but observing the joy they have being in one another’s company is heart-warming. I adopted a 3 month little guy named Rapa. I am very excited to see how he grows with his new adopted brothers and sisters.

Believe it or not, these elephants are not the highlight of the trip thus far (neither was being able to stream the TiCats game and watch them cream the Blue Bombers). The highlight is volunteering at Kaizora. Kaizora is the first ABA school in Eastern Africa and it houses 14 bright and wonderful students with ASD. The center has a single Board Certified Behavior Analyst and the staff have been trained by her with biannual on-sight support from the Global Autism Project. The vast majority of the staff walk into Kaizora with no knowledge of ABA and minimal knowledge of ASD. So, I was pleasantly surprised to have a conversation about behaviour momentum and incidental teaching on my first day with a few of the staff members who had been at Kaizora for a few years. What is more impressive is their rapport with the students. From what I have been told, Kenyans are culturally stoic, reserved, and calm; three characteristics that are not ideal for a behaviour therapist. A behaviour therapist needs to entertain, be enthusiastic, and deliver exaggerated praise for positive behaviours. The staff at Kaizora embody these traits. As a result, the students are engaged and extremely happy. The day starts with 30 minutes of music and movement and the rest of the morning is divided between independent work and 1:1 instruction. The afternoons are divided into three activities which they do in a group (e.g., art, interactive games, storytime, constructive play, special olympics, etc.). On Thursdays, the students go swimming.

There are so many positives however a lot of work is necessary for training, program development, and strategies to promote communication and reduce undesirable behaviours. One of the greatest things about this experience and Global Autism Project is this constant reflection about sustainability. We are not looking to put a Band-Aid on the gaps and challenges. We are looking to share our experiences so that the staff will be able to take our ideas and build a foundation so that they are able to independently problem solve challenges once we leave. This is an exciting challenge which would not be possible if it were not for the staff’s desire for their students to succeed (and the amazing capacity building of past Skill Corps teams). I have had the opportunity to work in a variety of centres and schools across Canada and the U.S.A. Kaizora stands out as a child-first centre. Issues relating to money and insurance or the typical politics that come from working in any sector in a developed country do not supersede the child’s best interest at Kaizora. It is refreshing and eye-opening and I can’t wait until tomorrow (which could be why I am writing this at 4:30 in the morning).

 

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Do Few Things Better

By Catherine Wilson, a member of the current SkillCorps team in Kenya

My experience with the Global Autism Project has taken me more than half way around the world being that I started in Hawaii.  Orientation was in New York, which made going the long way around to Kenya worth it so I could meet my SkillCorps team members.  I also received a first hand overview on what Global Autism Project has been up to.  Molly Ola Pinney has brought this organization a long way since I was first introduced to it at ABAI.  Her motto of, “Do few things better,” has serviced her well.  How honored I feel to be part of such an amazing organization and working side by side with clinicians who are knowledgeable and compassionate in the field of autism.

Once in Kenya the familiar excitement of traveling was all around with the different languages, different foods, the car steering wheel and driving on the other side.  Many laughable moments came from the sites such as the large bulletin boards advertising local beer by welcoming President Obama, who made a visit to his father’s home town last month and the 70s/80s American remix being played at the restaurant we stopped at for lunch.

We all rested up and settled into our guesthouse.  A trip to the local grocery store for a few missing necessities and to purchase our drinking water for the week gave us an opportunity to look at the different products sold here.

By Monday morning we were ready to get to work.  Pooja, the director of the center in Nairobi, gave us the task of staff evaluations to obtain a non-biased opinion of the staff’s current performance.  The eval was detailed with many opportunities for us to witness the target areas of performance.  When we went out into the center the first activity we saw was circle time.  It was accompanied by singing and a guitar.  The children’s faces carried wide smiles as they danced around.

The day was spent reviewing program binders, noting what was and was not done for programs and getting to know the names of the staff and children.  The individual schedules for each child made getting to know the routine simple.  Pooja the director had a very pleasant yet respectful air about herself.  Everyone was very welcoming.

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A Year of Progress and a Lesson in Hope

By Cassie Harden, a SkillCorps Trip Leader and Fundraising Coordinator for the Global Autism Project

Optimism is not exactly a term with which I identify. I’m not really a glass half full or half empty kind of gal. I’m a “Fill that thing with ice and make it full!” kind of person. I’ve never been able to define my particular disposition aside from once at a dinner party, where my seat became a soapbox and someone called me an “aggressively passionate optimist.” Despite her insisting this was a compliment, I couldn’t quite settle with that title.

Recently, a friend of mine gave me a book of inspirational quotes which was laced primarily with sugarcoated suggestions for dealing with the pseudo-traumatic realities of this thing we call life. But sandwiched somewhere between “shoot for the moon” and “count your blessings,” I found this little gem:

 

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

–Vaclav Havel

As it seems, I am what they call “hopeful.” And exactly one year ago, I found my place in an organization full of proactive, plane-hopping hopefuls. I met my people in Global Autism Project—a rare breed of humans who reject the notion that communities must simply accept the provided glass of water, and choose to either appreciate its existence or resent what is lacking. Because when we look at the global disparity in quality services provided for individuals with autism, we can’t simply accept the waterline reaching halfway. There has to be more than just two options.

So we’re filling it—and not with resources from an abundant well. We’re partnering with the people around the world who have also rejected the two finite options of optimism and pessimism, and are responding instead with hope. As partners, we are actively working to help them fill the void with their own resources; expanding on what they know and building with what they have. With an ever-flexible method, a grass-roots model and a stubborn goal, I know that this makes sense. It makes sense because the foundation is rooted in sustainability.

And so, sustainability has become the soapbox on which I live. Sustainability is my single word response to the recurring question of “Why Global Autism Project?” And it was the sustainable change, and the lasting impact that I saw in action over the past two weeks in Chandigarh, India. But it took time for me to sincerely see what that meant.

This time last year I walked through the doors of SOREM as an ambitious, yet insecure paraprofessional turned ABA advocate. I was a wide-eyed, first time SkillCorps volunteer with hell-bent intentions on changing the world in two weeks. Having traveled four times with Global Autism Project, now as a SkillCorps team leader, I’ve learned to look back on lessons learned from my first trip to India last July.

What began, as a sonic-speed mission to train seven teachers in an assessment protocol, quickly became an eight-day lesson with one determined EI therapist and some pretty impressive volleys over language barriers. Within two hours at SOREM, I sorely realized that I would not succeed in implementing my initial goal of globe-altering change in just ten days. I remember leaving the school last year, after hugging Mamta (said determined therapist), hoping that my seemingly small lessons and objective advice would make a sustainable change in her challenging sessions.

Sixteen days ago when we finally arrived in Chandigarh, I felt a sudden pang of panic. I wondered if devastation would sweep in and knock the passion right out of me, should I walk into a classroom and find that nothing had passed the fly-away test one year ago. This feeling lasted about .7 seconds before the demons of failure fled my thoughts and I remembered my allegiance to hope.

 

“…the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

 

After preparing myself for what may feel something like starting over, I walked into Mamta’s Early Intervention room to observe a session. This particular session was of unique interest to me, as this kiddo joined the school during my time in SOREM last year. His assessment was definitely a challenge, and I was desperate to see any and every ounce of progress he and Mamta may have made together.

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And the progress was incredible. There was laughter that followed task completion and songs were greeted with clapping imitation. In a world of data collection, I didn’t need to look at charts to see a measurable change (as blasphemous as that may be to say), her reinforcement plan was working and he was engaged in activities I couldn’t imagine he would complete independently. This, for me, was my defining SkillCorps experience. Measuring a year of progress in laughter, clapping and block stacking.

Then there was a moment when the word hope took on an entirely new role in my career with this organization. I’ve maintained my passion by having hope; knowing that what we are doing makes sense, despite my inability to imagine the lengths of the outcome. But practicing hopeful thinking is not what fuels my devotion to Global Autism Project’s movement for change. It is the hope that our partners—the unwavering advocates for quality services in these communities, are instilling in every parent of every child. It’s the contagious hope that spreads from the commitment and devotion of each teacher and therapist. That hope is what will continue to build local capacity. That hope is sustainability. And that hope will define the indefinite outcome of the beautiful work we are doing.

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Making Changes

by Zara Zeleny, a member of the recent SkillCorps team in India

Just a warning to any of my close friends who are reading this…I am going to express some “emotions” and “feelings” in this blog post which I know is uncharacteristic of me, but traveling with SkillCorps does some weird, amazing things to a person.

As the trip is coming to an end it is incredible to think that two weeks ago we met in New York, flew to India, and were told to go make sustainable changes in a place that I had never been, and with limited time. This was one daunting task and honestly, one that I was nervous about completing.

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Our first week at SOREM was spent observing the classrooms, collaborating with teachers, creating goals and holding discussions with the teachers. After many conversations of how to make sustainable changes and touch on as many goals that we and SOREM had, we decided to start the implementation of independent activity tasks along with First-Then boards and reinforcer menus, in an effort to reduce challenging behaviors occurring during down-time. After discussing this with the teachers, they all seemed to understand and were on board. Although it had just been three days, it already felt that we had done so much, because we had something tangible to work on the next week. After a productive first week, I was ready for our weekend excursion to Amritsar. By this point the five of us on this trip were inseparable and there was no topic too personal to discuss—and believe me, they were all discussed.

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While vising the Golden Temple on our excursion I really got to thinking. This is amazing. I loved this feeling. It was addicting. It was a mixture of accomplishment, joy, amazement, curiosity and a dash of nervousness. (There’s the feelings part, y’all. I warned you.) It was this moment of viewing something spectacular that I never thought I would see combined with looking back on the past week, thinking about the next week, wondering why I was here in India and how it would effect my future that I suddenly felt comfortable with what was going on.

When we returned to SOREM on Monday we were in full “git’er done” mode. We immediately went into classrooms to start developing materials with the resources they had. Normally back at home I would Google some pictures, type some things up, print it and then laminate it all and Ta-Da! it would all be done and beautiful. This however was not an option here. Luckily for me, and my lack of artistic skills, I am not a perfectionist. So as we were helping make materials by cutting apart medicine boxes, paper bags, drawing with pens and using tape to make it all durable I was okay with the un-evenness of the pictures and tape sticking off the side of the boards. One of my wonderful teammates, however, did not like my artistic style and would snag my materials and cut the edges to make everything look great. I thought my way added character—but whatever.

By the end of our second day back at SOREM the teachers that we were working with were using their First-Then boards and reinforcer menus, which left us (and them) with huge smiles on our faces at the end of each day. Not only that, but two of the classrooms had independent activity stations set up and were implementing it with their students which made us want to dance (to 2000s Hip Hop, obviously).

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So how has the experience helped to shape my future? Well for one, I have already signed up for my second SkillCorps trip to Indonesia in March! (You’re not done with me yet, Global Autism Project!) Second, it has made me realize the importance of having a team to be able to collaborate with, which will be critical during my new adventure of job searching. And third, the importance of getting out of your comfort zone so you can see how much you are truly capable of when you’re not limited to a little box that you are familiar with.

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Comfort Zoned

By Maddisen Currier, a member of the current SkillCorps team in Kenya.

The first moment I knew I was in a little over my head… stepping out of the airport in NYC. The second was praying for my life as the taxi sped around in rush hour traffic, all while taking time to check his messages. I have traveled abroad before, and never really had a hard time being away from home. For some reason, this trip has been very different. I began experiencing culture shock in NYC, but that combined with two long international flights, plus a few logistics issues, made it that much worse when I arrived in Kenya. I’m not going to lie; I had a rough couple of days.

Who knew T. Swift was popular in Kenya?

A few days working with the kiddos, a good nights sleep, two trips to the elephant orphanage, and lots of laughter later and I am finally feeling back to my ‘normal’ self. I have already seen amazing things, but have only been in Kenya for a few days! I have seen wonderful things at the center and from my team. I have already learned so much from my team members. I am beyond excited for the rest of our time here.

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No Greater Joy

By Cherry Truong, a member of the SkillCorps team currently in Kenya

For the past eleven months, the excitement has been bubbling in anticipation for this once in a lifetime opportunity. An opportunity that would not only give me a new perspective on life, but also shed a whole new light on a passion of mine; autism. As I entered those office doors in Brooklyn, NY to begin my journey, the sense of adventure set in, with a slight feeling of “what the heck am I doing here.” It’s now or never I told myself… and also probably too late for me to back out. Besides everyone back home may still think ‘Cherry’s going to see Kanye.’ After more then 15 hours of flying, the SkillCorps team arrived in Kenya! It’s time for the real adventure to begin.

Day 1: Greeted by bright ambitious faces, the team heads out for the day to explore the alluring organized land that is Nairobi. Our first stop was the elephant orphanage. Most if not all of these elephants are under the age of 3, and many of them were abandoned when their mothers died due to poaching. They each have their own story, personality and quirks. There’s something special to be said when people from all different backgrounds cross paths, and become a family. I believe the same could be said for these elephants. As the day continued we continued to explore, but deep down inside, I had never wished for a Monday to come sooner.

Day 2: There is truly no greater joy then seeing bright-eyed children, with their uplifting smiles dancing and singing their hearts out. Being at the center today was everything I expected and more. I loved seeing each therapist work with their children, and the bond they’ve created. Being able to observe and embrace the greatness that surrounded us was inspiring. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to the staff, getting to know them and learning how their passions have led them in this direction. Understanding that feeling that keeps them coming back every day to work with these amazing children. I love how we are all so culturally different, yet our drive to see growth and development in these children brings us together. The thing I loved most about today was when both teams got together and talked about the highlight of the day, and each person’s response was about the kids and their accomplishments. It really shows that we are exactly where should be. There isn’t a single complaint about the day, nor is there any other place I rather be at the moment.

Day 3: It only seems to be better. Now that everyone is somewhat acquainted, the work begins. It’s every ABA nerd’s dream to start their day with some ABA banter, throw ideas around, and discuss strategies. Don’t get me wrong, being in the office with these insanely intelligent people was beyond incredible, but the icing on the cake for me was being able to spend time with the kids. Watching a little man perfectly sandwich himself between the three girls at lunch, to hearing contagious giggles, to throwing sand around just because it’s fun to. These are the moments I live for!

Day 4: Today I reflected back on why I wanted to join SkillCorps. At first I thought it would be a neat opportunity to take what I do in Canada abroad. But in the past week I’ve learned so much about the Global Autism Project and the collaborations with their partners. I have also learned plenty about myself already. My goal going into this trip was to be more creative and start thinking outside the box, but in all honesty, it’s been difficult. It’s hard for me to flip a switch on my brain, and think of ideas that are doable for the staff with the structure already in place. I’m so use to having access to whatever it is I need for my clients that my first thought isn’t ‘is this doable or feasible?” With that being said, the process of being creative, and brainstorming new ideas has definitely been a challenge, but in the famous words of Barney Stinson, “Challenge accepted!” Until next week…

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