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Summer Camp for Students with Disabilities - Cultural Exchange for All

July, 16 2015

Youth with disabilities are often neglected in or even denied access to public education across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. A 2013 UNICEF Report found that many children with disabilities in the region are often not even given the chance to attend secondary school. The lack of resources for youth with special needs is still a lingering problem in many post-Soviet Union countries. But a haven for students who are eager to learn English exists in an unassuming place: a summer camp in Chisinau, Moldova.

 

The five-week-long summer camp brings students with mild mental and physical disabilities-such as autism or cerebral palsy-from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Serbia to take part in activities that aid their learning of English in an accepting, stress-free atmosphere. The best part? They camp alongside students without disabilities, who learn to challenge the stereotypes surrounding people with special needs.

 

The camp adapts to each new group of campers. For example, the camp prints specialized Braille or large-font books for blind or hard-of-sight students. For students with limited mobility, the entire camp comes equipped with ramps and supporting bars in the rooms. Every teacher and camp counselor goes through training on teaching youth with special needs to give individual attention to each student. All campers attend several hours of English classes each day.

 

But it's not all work and no play at summer camp! The students get involved in activities like the social theatre club, the English vocabulary club, arts and crafts classes, and civic engagement projects. These clubs not only offer a break from the academic part of the program but also allow students to engage in creative assignments where they feel safe to share their thoughts and take on new challenges. This summer, a blind student from Kyrgyzstan was thrilled to learn a dance routine for a group dance performance; an activity she had always been told was she was incapable of learning.

 

And it's not all about disabilities, either. The summer camp, drawing students from over 10 countries, is the perfect ground for cultural exchange to take place. "The best experience that I have had working at the summer camp [in Moldova] was watching two boys from Armenia and Azerbaijan became close friends, despite the tensions between their countries on the political level," a camp counselor recalled from years working at the camp. "It showed how international summer camps and cultural exchange can build bridges of friendship no matter what the circumstance is back home."

 

Quotes from Camp Coordinators and Staff

 

Alexandr Hriptun, former FLEX Alumni Coordinator and EFL Summer Camp Coordinator: "While we mostly talk about how students with disabilities benefit from the inclusive language training that this camp offers, I would like to stress that its inclusive model is also extremely beneficial for students without disabilities, as it gives them a chance to challenge the stereotypes of disabilities that they might have, and extend their understanding of what people with disabilities go through on a day-to-day basis. They learn how to live together and work together with students who need just a bit more help, and some of the most inspiring friendships are forged here. Of course, it is also particularly challenging for us as the staff, since we need to facilitate smooth learning process and guide all students through it, but it is definitely a great learning experience. As for the best experience that I had during EFL, I think it was looking at how two boys from Armenia and Azerbaijan became very close friends while in Moldova, despite of all the tensions their countries have on political level. It showed how EFL can build bridges of friendship no matter what."

 

Marina Buciuc, former EFL Summer Camp Coordinator, FLEX alumna: "I have started as a Logistics Assistant at EFL Summer Camp and have been coordinating it for the past three years, though the idea of the camp hasn't changed much throughout the years, each new group of the students is different from its predecessor. Every year it feels like the biggest concern is how many special needs students are going to participate and what kind of specific arrangements have to be done, but in real life special needs students hardly ever require sophisticated assistance and in my experience working with them doesn't differ from working with other EFL campers. Nethertheless, each year EFL teachers adjust their classes to the needs of the student not just on technical level, but also psychological, since most of the times it is not the disability that stands in the student's way, but the way he or she feels about it. American Councils Moldova tries to reach out to special needs students and make them feel confident enough to participate in international exchanges. Besides EFL camp which is designed for already FLEX finalists, there is also Access Microscholarship Program oriented to improve English skills and even before that I personally volunteered as an English teacher at Speranta Center for children with disabilities as a part of American Councils project. As for one of the best moments from the camp, I recall how one of our blind participants managed to learn dance moves for our group dancing and be a part of common performance. That made her very happy since she had never done that before, but to us it showed one more time that only the sky is the limit.

 

Alexandru Lozinschi, EFL Summer Camp assistant: "In the past 3 years I had several opportunities to work with people with special needs. One of the most memorable events that I organized for kids with disabilities was a city quest during the Access Summer Camp. The city quest involves traveling by public transport, walking for a pretty long distance and interacting with people on the street, conditions that made me feel a little nervous, not knowing how the group will overcome these challenges. I was surprised to see how involved and energetic where these kids and how many things they can achieve if they are given the autonomy or the chance to deal with the life around them. As expected, at the end of the camp, when we conducted the final surveys, we found out that going into the city and interacting with other people was one of the most enjoyable and helpful event during the Summer Camp.

 

Nata Andreev, former EFL Summer Camp Coordinator, FLEX alumna: "Probably the best way to describe the way to describe the way I felt when working with special needs FLEX finalists is blessed and challenged. Blessed because all of them have to share life stories that give you chills and also inspiration. Challenged because you are so scared that they are fragile and you are scared to somehow hurt their feelings, but they prove you wrong very quickly. I think it was perfect that every staff member involved had training prior to the camp. Even our volunteers were instructed. I think giving specific information and letting people ask questions is the best way to improve your expertise in any field, but mostly when you work with special needs people. Their Facebook messages after a couple of months in US were the most rewarding outcomes of my experience as an EFL Summer Camp Coordinator. When you read how grateful they are for everything that we've done for them makes my heart blossom. Other important moments - clubs which have a special importance, because you are having some quality time with the participants. I was leading the Art Club and I think it is very productive that while the students engage in some creative assignments, they feel free and safe to share their thoughts and stories. "

 

 

 

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