A mother’s perspective on her daughter moving to Zambia and joining the Special Hope Network team!

My name is Melissa Svymbersky. I live in Champaign IL, and my daughter Lauren has been the Director of Education at SHN for almost 4 years. I have been a nurse for more than 20 years here in the Champaign area, which is where Lauren grew up, went to college at the University of Illinois, and where her interest in traveling and learning about different cultures and people really started. In college, she studied abroad in Italy and traveled all over Europe. When she first told me she wanted to study abroad I said “no”, but Lauren is very determined – little did I know this was just the beginning of her travels. 

When she told me she wanted to go back to Zambia to work there, I wasn’t shocked, but I wasn’t thrilled either. I knew nothing about Zambia and it was way too far away as far as I was concerned. But I also knew I couldn’t change her mind, so I made the decision to support her however I could. When I realized I would be able to video chat with her regularly, it made me more comfortable. I honestly didn’t know if I would ever visit her there, but I eventually did in 2017 and I was incredibly glad I went. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after being there, I realized how the Zambian culture is very laid back. The people are respectful and friendly. One thing that surprised me, was that Lusaka had some of the city-like amenities that we have in United States; like a big shopping mall on every corner, and movie theaters.

Getting the opportunity to meet all the people Lauren works with—Holly and Eric, the teachers, and other staff—really made an impact on me. Not only because of the incredible work they’re doing there, but because of how connected the staff is. It’s not just a team of coworkers, it’s a family. 

I was also able to participate in the daily activities happening at the Resource Center and the Community Care Centers. I loved all the singing and story times, and getting to play with the kids. One of my favorite memories was when I visited a Community Care Center and was invited to visit the home of one of the families that attended, it was a mother and daughter.  It was very meaningful to hear the mom talk about how much of an impact SHN has made on her life; how she doesn’t feel alienated and alone anymore. She explained that she and her daughter now have people who care about them, and are teaching her how to communicate with her daughter. That memory is one I’ve held with me since I came back. 

Seeing my daughter at work and impacting so many lives makes me incredibly proud. Lauren is tenacious; when she sets her mind to a task, she will accomplish it. She is very focused on being able to improve the lives of the children and families at SHN. When family and friends ask about what Lauren does, I tell them about my visits, and how she’s working to improve the centers’ impact and reach with the goal of making Special Hope’s services available to the people who need it the most. One of the biggest challenges in explaining the necessity of the work is the cultural difference. It often becomes difficult trying to explain the challenges of a child with intellectual disabilities in Zambia, the lack of resources and government support, and how without SHN, these families wouldn’t have the potential to communicate with their children and learn alongside of them. When I see SHN continuing to serve and empower the community well, and I hear about families and children accomplishing their goals, then I know that having my daughter on the other side of the ocean is all worth it!