In January 2012, Buena Vista University students in the travel course “Changing the World, One Child at a Time” will go to India to help a segment of society that often goes unnoticed: children with developmental disorders.
The school at which they will volunteer – located in Vishakhapatnam, India – is based on the Lebenshilfe model of education and is run by Sara Devi, a longtime friend of Dr. Robbie Ludy, professor of education and a co-leader of the trip. The two met through their involvement with the International Association of Special Education. Ludy and several other BVU professors visited the school in 2007 on a trip with BVU’s McCorkle Fellows program.
“People in social work and education tend to be drawn to the people society tends to forget,” says Ludy. “We often say – if we don’t do this, then who else will? Sara saw these children and vowed she’d not only help them, but help change their communities. She created a theater and dance troupe, for example, so people could see the children dancing, and not just see their disabilities.”
Students at the school learn simple trades they will be able to be use as adults. The school embraces a diversity of cultural influences. Children are bilingual, speaking English and Urlu. Religions practiced include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Baha’i.
“We’ll be living and teaching at the school, and BVU students will earn field work credits toward education, social work, and special education,” says Ellen Holmgren, assistant professor of social work, who will co-lead the 25-day trip with Ludy. “One of the unique things about the trip as a classroom experience is that Robbie’s and my professions interact every day in the working world, but our students often don’t get the chance to train across disciplines. When they graduate, they’ll do so with a better knowledge of how to work together professionally.”
The BVU students are bringing to the Lebenshilfe school one-on-one time with the students there, a cross-cultural connection, and expertise to help with long-term planning for the facility. In addition to working with the Lebenshilfe students, the BVU students will work with their mothers – many of whom stay at the school – to develop community organizing strategies.
“I wanted to support Sara’s school,” says Ludy. “I asked her what I could send, and she said I need people.”
“It’s reinforcement: politically, socially, and educationally,” says Holmgren. “Not long ago, these kids’ mothers believed the sins of the parents were visited on their children, or that you could ‘catch’ mental disabilities. These were stigmas and stereotypes also held in America in the 60s. These parents aren’t used to having some of the support we can provide. They aren’t used to hearing that their children are great.”
Holmgren and Ludy hope to provide a picture of India that will juxtapose the romanticism and impressive sites of the country with the realities of colonial struggle and everyday life. Other areas they will visit include the capital city of New Delhi and the booming technopolis of Hyderabad, home to call centers and various high technology companies.
Among the sites the students will see are the 16th century mosque the Charminar (Visakhapatnam); the massive Chandni Chowk marketplace (Dehli); the contemporarily-designed Bahá'í House of Worship, also called the Lotus Temple (Delhi), the Hindu Laxminarayan Temple (Delhi); the World War I memorial the India Gate (Delhi); the 94-acre defensive structure the Agra Fort; and the Taj Mahal, near which students will stay overnight to see the landmark in both the morning and evening light.
“While we’ll see ancient ruins, I want students to understand the challenges India is experiencing as a modern nation developing its identity,” says Ludy. “Just because you don’t own a flush toilet doesn’t mean you’re poor. Different doesn’t necessarily mean deviant, and I want our students to think critically about what that means.”