Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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On a Mission: U.Va. Student Puts Special Ed Training to Use in Ugandan Orphanage

Getting involved is part of the student experience at the University of Virginia, whether through student government, club sports, membership in organizations and societies, or volunteering. For Brecklyn Bodkin, a graduate student in the Curry School of Education, the experience includes spending this semester in Uganda at an orphanage for children with special needs.

Bodkin, who majored in psychology as an undergraduate in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences, is in Curry’s five-year Bachelor/Master in Teaching program in Early Childhood Special Education. She said she entered college knowing she wanted to teach special education, like her mother.

Bodkin was able to go abroad this semester, thanks to some credits she earned in high school and graduate Curry courses she was able to take while in the College. She then worked last fall with her faculty adviser, associate professor of education Tina Stanton-Chapman, to make spending the semester in Uganda this fall a reality. 

“Brecklyn is an extraordinary teacher of young children,” Stanton-Chapman said. “She is highly motivated to learn skills for classroom teaching and apply these skills in the classroom setting.”

Bodkin – who has been active in Agape Christian Fellowship while at U.Va., along with Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries, the Madison House CAVS in the Classroom program and Adaptive Ski program while a member of the Virginia Ski and Snowboard Team for a year – said her desire to go to Uganda arose from a mission trip to Botswana in 2011. “The opportunity came a lot sooner than expected,” she said.

Through a series of events, Bodkin came upon Ekisa, an orphanage for children with special needs. “I fell in love with the ministry aspect of it in reaching out and sharing the love of Christ with children and families of children with disabilities, who in Uganda’s culture are seen in such a negative light,” she said.

The 21 children at the orphanage all have “some sort of special need – cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, language delays, physical disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, intellectual disabilities, autism, spina bifida, severe burns – but all absolutely beautiful,” Bodkin said in an email interview. 

She’s put much of what she has learned at Curry and the College to use during her planned three-month stay at the orphanage.

“Since being here for about a month, I have created a behavior plan for one little boy, started a Picture Exchange Communication System with two children who are nonverbal, helped create lesson plans to do in ‘school’ during the day and helped develop objectives for each of the kids,” she said. “Then little things that I have seen in practicums, like songs, activities, decorations and other ideas, I have been able to put into practice here, too.”

Six of the children attend a local elementary school from 8 a.m. to noon. Such inclusion  “is so encouraging to see,” Bodkin said. For the rest, the orphanage is their school.

Bodkin said she is “absolutely loving” the experience. “It is so neat to see how God has definitely placed me here for a reason.” Being at Ekisa has “helped me grow in understanding of the world and my place in it. I am not going to be able to change or help every child, but being able to love children and show them the kind of love that Jesus has shown me, I think can make all the difference in the world, even if just to one child.”

Bodkin doesn’t know if the work at Ekisa is causing a cultural shift in the way Ugandans view those with special needs. But at a grassroots level, she is witnessing a difference.

“Seeing a family who once wanted to give up their child, come to love him, I think is a positive change. Also, we have had one child adopted by a ‘Mamma’ that works here. ... Seeing the desire of Ekisa to love these children extend throughout the local community is so encouraging.” It's one of Ekisa’s goals – to find each child a “forever family.” 

Bodkin said the children’s lives and stories “will forever change me. Whether it be a little girl with cerebral palsy, who is one of the brightest children I know, but is unable to get her body to do what she wants, or a little boy, who has autism, and cannot verbally communicate, each child has a way of expressing joy and happiness in just about every situation."

The children are teaching Bodkin to not sweat the little things and “to find joy in every aspect of my life” – a good lesson for the soon-to-be graduate, who will earn her degree in May and plans to look for a teaching position after that in an early-childhood special education classroom.

“I will probably apply for jobs throughout Virginia, and maybe some surrounding states,” said Bodkin, whose hometown is Berryville. But she won’t be returning home for a while.

“If possible, I may look into coming back to teach in a special needs school or orphanage in Africa or somewhere else in the world,” she said. She's keeping herself open to wherever she is led.

About Ekisa Orphanage

Ekisa Orphanage was founded by two young women, Emily Worrall and Emily Henderson, who were volunteering in Jinja in 2008. Ekisa Ministries was born in February 2010, and the orphanage opened its doors the following February. By October 2011, it had grown from one child to 16. Currently 21 children live at Ekisa – which means “grace” in English – and the Emilys plan to expand the facility to allow for more children. “While orphanages are a dime a dozen in Uganda, very few are willing to take special needs children. The need is great,” their website states.

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