Where do we go from here?
Check in here to learn about our progress with the older orphan program in Hengyang.
The latest addition to our youth program is a sign language class! Why sign language you may ask? Well, many of our youth have disabilities such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and brain injuries which impact their ability to speak. Some have unclear speech and others cannot speak at all. So last month we began, in a very basic way, a sign language class for teachers, caregivers and youth. Some days we have two dozen or more "students" and some days only about ten, but regardless of size the enthusiasm for the class has been amazing. The teachers and caregivers have embraced it far beyond my expectations, which has really led to its success.
We meet Monday through Friday in the afternoon for about 15 minutes, although everyone enjoys it so much that the class often goes longer. In the first weeks I would introduce three to five new words each day: I was trying to keep it simple so that everyone would be able to absorb the new words. On days when I thought we should just practice and not add more words there was such disappointment that I would quickly teach a few new ones. We now have in excess of 50 words/signs which most everyone knows quite well, and we are holding there while we develop fluency and work on using the words in questions and sentences. We are also spending more time working one on one with the youth who do not speak to make sure they make the shift from copying the signs to using them as language. This is more challenging than it sounds so I think we will be in this phase for awhile.
The response of the young people is, of course, what really makes it worthwhile. Some days when I arrive at the center there will be one of two teens greeting me with their hands flying. They may not actually be trying to communicate, but they are mimicing the signs with gusto! One of the most proficient students is a young lady who can speak, but who has really learned quickly and enthusiastically. This is exciting for two reasons: first, it is important that as many youth as possible learn the signs or the ones who use it to communicate won't have anyone to communicate with; and second, this young lady doesn't show a lot of interest in much. Watching her participate and succeed in learning to sign is a win in itself. And then there is YQ, who was my biggest inspiration for starting the class. She is a young woman who doesn't speak -- she points and grunts. This has been reasonably effective for her, but she can do so much more with a language to give her a voice. YQ has learning disabilities as well so learning the signs and associating them with words has taken a lot of work, but she is determined, and so are we. You can imagine my delight last week when YQ moved from copying my signs to making signs to match my words. Woohoo! And her handshapes were pretty good! She hasn't yet signed without prompting; breaking her habit of pointing and grunting and making the connection that this fun hand game is real language will take more time, but she is well on the way.
And how am I teaching sign language you may ask? Although I have a basic knowledge of ASL (American Sign Language), I felt it was important to teach these young people Chinese Sign Language which is a different language...which I don't know! With the help of the internet, a book, a Chinese sign language app, and a young man in our program who is deaf, I am keeping a step or two ahead of the class. First I choose the vocabulary for the day. I put those words in either English or pinyin (Chinese using letters instead of characters) into my translation app which shows the characters. (The young man who is deaf doesn't know pinyin and the Chinese sign language app only uses characters!) Then SM either shows me the sign or, if he doesn't know it, he puts the characters into his app which will then demonstrate the correct sign. We then practice the signs together...and laugh a lot. The joy on HIS face every time I learn a new sign and expand my knowledge of his language is reward in itself.
Get to know "my kids."
Here in Hengyang I work with three groups of teens and young adults, most over 16:
1) Most of my time is spent with a dozen young people with modereate physical and cognitive challenges who live in group home units inside the ICC facility. These kids are currently doing "sheltered workshop" type activities: jewelry making, bead crafts and note cards. My role is to work with the youth workers to expand those activities, and target ways to develop self-care, life skills and improved emotional regualtion with this group, moving everyone to higher levels of independence according to their abilities. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated as I get to know each young person and discover how to tap into their strengths.
2) Higher functioning kids in three group homes in the local community. These young people need to work on life skills, education and vocational training to continue to move toward independence. Many of these youth are in wheelchairs, so adapting life skill activities and encouraging mobility outside their home are two challenges. In the future we hope to develop internship options within local businesses, and a potential small business opportunity, such as a drinks stand, cafe, bakery, shop, etc.
3) The third group are much lower functioning young adults; many have physical needs but it is primarily their cognitive/emotional issues which preclude independent living (although I always say never say never). This group needs a more developed, rounded program of activities which can improve their overall functioning and quality of life.
This is not a one-size-fits-all exercise, and that is possibly the greatest challenge. I know I will need to be sensitive to discover the best way to unlock each person's potential and grace to be patient when progress is slow.
The other priority is to get to know the Chinese staff in charge of these programs and learn how to blend into their team. The objective is always empowering the local staff so my role is not to lead or manage, but to mentor, encourage, help with problem solving, perhaps work together on casting vision, planning, or whatever they feel will help them best meet their goals. Please keep me in your thoughts as I seek to be the best team player I can be.
Are there challenges ahead? I think that's pretty clear! Are these kids worth the effort? Absolutely! Each one is fearfully and wonderfully made and deserves all we can do to give him or her a life worth living. If you want to play a part, please Donate.