On July 31st 2017 I said goodbye to friends and family as I prepared to leave for a county halfway around the world. I thought, “No worries everyone, I will only be gone for a year! A year will go by quickly, I will work hard, learn as much as I can about a new community, and be back in no time.”
My name is Martha Fuechsel and I have served on the Special Hope Network team as a Cooperating Teacher for the past three years. Special Hope has taught me more than I ever thought was possible. Leaving my hometown in Virginia and moving to Zambia, Africa felt daunting. But to my delight, I was welcomed by kind people, a vibrant culture, and sweet babies with intellectual disabilities, making Zambia quickly feel like home. As I reflect on the past 3 years, and begin transitioning back to life in the States, I am continually reminded of Special Hope Network’s impressive dedication to their mission.
If I had gone to Zambia and joined an organization that half-heartedly cared about their community and was not motivated to learn from the community and grow, then it would have been easy to return to Virginia after a year. However, that is not what I found at Special Hope Network.
Mission Statement: Special Hope Network exists to bring glory to God by creating a world where all children are valued. We impact communities by improving care for children with intellectual disabilities. This starts by equipping families and caregivers to provide these children with a loving home, holistic health care, and exceptional education and therapies.
Special Hope Network never wavers from their mission. They do not merely speak what ought to be done; they consistently and humbly act. As a team member living in the community, I was daily inspired and encouraged to faithfully and wholeheartedly engage with our Special Hope community of children and families.
I’ve seen firsthand the beautiful result of actively pursuing this mission. Children with disabilities ARE growing, progressing, and becoming more accepted by their families. Children are learning to walk, learning to talk, learning to write, learning to read, and are becoming more independent. When I walk into a Community Care Center, I see and hear children being taught individualized goals by their mothers, who are assisted by our teachers. I’ve seen the impact of declaring these children as worthy, and as individuals who have a right to education, a safe home, and love. The lives of children and families are changing for the better!
I was also surrounded by teachers and a leadership team who were constantly motivated to learn and work hard to improve services for our children. Every week I was able to train teachers who were eager to learn. Many of these teachers had never met a child with disabilities before working at Special Hope, but they brought passion, humility, and open hearts to learn. I witnessed teachers master difficult concepts and creatively apply them as they taught. I worked with a team that continued to brainstorm, prototype, and improve our programming. Programs became more individualized, training became more parent-specific and practical, and the way we led and taught improved to mirror the Zambian culture (not our own). Our leaders researched, attended trainings, and taught us new strategies for continued growth.
Most recently, I was able to work with parents at our Community Care Centers, and be part of creating a 2 year parent training program. I met mothers who had no previous understanding of their child’s disability, who were blamed and ostracized for having a child with disabilities, and who had lost husbands and jobs. These mothers came to our centers 3 times a week to learn how to be good teachers and provide the best care for their children. Parents listened intently during trainings and learned how to apply Special Education strategies to support their child’s development at home. Parents came alive through creative skits that helped them gain a deeper understanding of new material. They grew together in community during dance parties at circle time. Mothers developed ownership and confidence as they stepped into their role as a mom of a child with a disability. I personally experienced growth, love, and laughter, and felt privileged to be a part of that community.
These stories may sound cheesy and overly optimistic, but there were many obstacles along the way. I witnessed hardships, illnesses, children who passed away, mothers who struggled to love and accept their child, trainings that didn’t go as planned, and ideas that fell short. But through it all, we worked towards improvement, modified what wasn’t working, and allowed hardship to produce new ideas that strengthened us as a community.
I share this reflection because I believe in Special Hope’s mission. I have lived it out alongside my team and my Special Hope family. I believe in the work that we do and that it will continue to flourish as I step away. I will always speak highly of my time with the Special Hope Network community.
“Why leave? Why start a new adventure?”
I’ve been asked, “Why leave? Why start a new adventure?” The fact is that expats, individuals like me who travel to Zambia, are not the answer to meeting Zambia’s needs. We are a tool. We can be a long term tool or a short term tool; there is a place for both.
I have a heart to teach children with disabilities, but I quickly learned that I could never be the best full-time teacher for a Zambian classroom. It is a role that our Zambian teachers fill much better as they beautifully and organically blend cultural understanding and context into their lessons. They provide consistency to children and parents through long term relationships, they share their knowledge with family and friends who may follow in their footsteps, and they will ultimately have the most significant impact on how their communities perceive children with intellectual disabilities.
I love that 90% of Special Hope’s staff are Zambians and only 10 percent are Americans. What a beautiful, much needed ratio! There is a huge need for people to move to Zambia to train teachers, work with our programs, bring new ideas, and support what we have developed. But there is an even greater need for Zambians to join our work, learn, share, and teach!
Zambia taught me about the importance of taking time to understand the community, learning from the community before teaching, and that laughter and dancing are daily necessities! I now have the privilege of taking what I learned from my Zambian community and sharing it with others. As I transition into an American public school this year, my teaching style will reflect greater cultural sensitivity, understanding, and authenticity from my experience in Zambia.
If you are reading this, I encourage you to support and pray for the work of Special Hope Network. I am honored to have been a part of it. If you are able, go and serve alongside Special Hope, especially if you have a heart for kids with disabilities. Sponsor a family. Share and ask others around you to join in the work. Spread the word to your church family or business team. Zambian communities are continually learning that children with intellectual disabilities are highly valued. The Lord is moving in Zambia through Special Hope!