There’s lots of whooping sounds coming from this school on a hot St. Thomas day. But it’s not all coming from the children, and not even from the teachers – today the parents are sharing in the fun and learning.
We were visiting Lyssons School for Special Education on ‘Crazy Day’, the final day of Parents Month. During the month, Principal Jacqueline Hendricks-Wilmot and her team have been trying to deliver on the national theme ‘Be the Influence’, to get parents more involved.
Being a parent of a child with special needs is not easy, and the school wants to help, says Jacqueline. She should know.
Appreciating needs of children and parents
“I’m a mother with a child on the autism spectrum, so I understand the pain of the parents at our school. Before we opened this September, if after primary school or a high school did not accept a child, then that child would just have to stay home,” says Jacqueline. Despite being dressed in a pink wig for the occasion, she could not be more serious.
Her 15-year-old son Jhordane travels to school in Kingston every day by bus. At a cost of $3,500 per week, the bus fare alone is more than half the national minimum weekly wage. For many other parents, she acknowledges, the situation is even harder.
“I try and make the office a place of rest for parents. First-hand experience is what I come with because I’m not a theoretical principal. I Iive it. I try and give them an opportunity to unload and they do. It’s hard when the fathers come in here and cry, they are weak and they don’t know what to do.”
“Me wan school fi open quick!”
Just as we’re taking photos, a student enters the office. “It looks nice, don’t take it off!” he implores. The wig stays on.
Soon it will be the Christmas break. When that happens, she says, she expects parents will soon be in touch: “School can’t open quick enough, and I quote: ‘Me wan school fi open quick!’”
While parenting can be overwhelming and stressful, trying to cope with learning disabilities brings extra demands. The parents – only mothers came today – are clearly enjoying themselves, although we did see one mother a little frustrated at being unable to get her child to take part in one activity.
Chance for parents to share
Guidance counsellor Marie Cameron-Francis was behind Crazy Day, and for her the month has been an opportunity not just to help families, but to help break down walls between parents and their children. A sports day for parents allowed children to see their parents just having fun and reduce their fears of taking part themselves.
“Like at the parents’ forum we had where the parents shared their challenges – especially when their children there are autistic. It’s hard for them to understand why their children behave the way they do. And for us it was a chance to explain about disability; and for the other parents to share their tips for parenting. They went home feeling a little better for knowing that they are not alone,” says Marie.
Other sessions offered tips on nutrition and also alternatives to corporal punishment – to help avoid children being beaten for behaviour caused by their learning disability; and parental frustration.
Parents fundraising for school
The parents we spoke to seem to be appreciative, none more so than Melessa Hamilton, a mother of two children: one who attends Lyssons and the other a regular school. “Special or not special – I love them both,” says Melessa.
On Crazy Day, Melessa is using all she learned at drama school as a child, including entertaining the students with her Sponge Bob impression.
“Right now I’m organizing with some friends to do a concert to buy some equipment for the school. I’m working on producing a skit to help them understand not to discriminate against children with special needs.”
While the Digicel Foundation built the school, and despite ongoing funding from the Ministry of Education, it still needs more resources to keep going. But with a community of people like mom Melessa behind it, only failing would be crazy.
Helping families like Melessa’s is why we’re partnering with the Digicel Foundation to strengthen advocacy for children with disabilities and to get more children with disabilities officially registered so that they can access the proper state services and benefits.