U.Va. Student Project to Aid Zambian Disabled Children Earns Davis Prize

A passion for helping disabled children has led three University of Virginia undergraduates to develop a program for teachers in Zambia, a country that has no formal special education infrastructure, with the help of a Davis Projects for Peace award.

Emily Nemec, 21, and Lauren Baetsen, 20, both third-year biomedical engineering majors in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Amanda Halacy, 19, a first-year student applying to be a Global Development Studies major in the College of Arts & Sciences, are sharing the $10,000 award and will combine it with funds from the Jefferson Public Citizens program and the Center for Global Health for their project.

Philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis, who passed away April 23, 2013, launched Projects for Peace on her 100th birthday in 2007, and that commitment has been renewed every year since. U.Va. has had Projects for Peace recipients in each of the program’s eight years of operation.

Nemec, Halacy and Baetsen plan to work with the Special Hope Network, a Zambian organization that educates children with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities from impoverished families in Lusaka, Zambia. These disabilities greatly limit the children’s future opportunities. The network, using trained Zambian high school graduates, provides free education as well as physical, speech and occupational therapy. The network’s teachers require further development in some essential skills, especially those related to organizing lessons that match the children’s most significant needs.

“This research project will examine whether explicit training in planning lessons on early reading skills results in improved outcomes for Zambian children,” the trio wrote in their Davis application. “Our multidisciplinary team will seek to improve the effectiveness of the Special Hope Network's teachers by establishing a sustainable, culturally fluent program to supplement training. The program will target organization and planning of literacy lessons.”

The project has personal appeal for Nemec, who plans a career in occupational therapy, focusing on children with developmental disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and sensory integration.

“I have a little sister with Down syndrome,” Nemec said. “Many of my future goals are guided by my close relationship and experiences with Sophie, and I am a strong advocate for global disability rights and improved opportunities and access for people with disabilities. The work that Special Hope does is so valuable and amazing, and I knew I wanted to collaborate with the organization and learn about its structure and methods.”

Halacy is also passionate about the issue because she believes many of the problems that plague the developing world, such as lack of health care, education and opportunities for upward mobility, can be alleviated.

“The stigma against disabilities in the developing world is significantly more severe than in the United States,” Halacy said. “Special Hope Network, our community partner, is so dedicated to providing the children and their families with more opportunities and better lives that it’s very inspiring. Our program will hopefully allow the administrators at SHN to focus on their goals more effectively.”

Baetsen believes she can learn a lot by stepping into unfamiliar territory.

“I hope that this project will increase my understanding of disabilities, particularly the challenges that people face in developing countries,” Baetsen said. “I think this is going to be an extremely eye-opening experience and I am so excited to get the opportunity to learn from people with different perspectives than my own. This trip is going to take me out of my comfort zone and I am so excited for that.”

Each member of the team brings a different talent to the table.

“I’ve had more experience in developing communities,” Halacy said. “Emily has had more experience with children with disabilities, and Lauren has had more experience with the technical aspects of design and implementation of such programs. It has been amazing to see how all of our different skill sets complement the others as we design and implement the program together.”

Paige Pullen, an associate professor in the Curry School of Education, said the project is innovative and will make a significant impact on many children with disabilities in Zambia.

“It is a particularly ambitious project for undergraduates to undertake, but knowing these three students, I know they will be successful in planning, implementing, completing and disseminating information from this endeavor,” Pullen said. “Emily, Amanda and Lauren are extraordinary undergraduate students and will be exemplary ambassadors for the University as they undertake the daunting challenge of providing professional development for teachers in a country that has no formal special education infrastructure.”

Pullen said the trio is mature, poised, enthusiastic, bright and inspiring.

“This young, hardworking team serves an exemplar for what faculty strive to accomplish — a cooperative, interdisciplinary team, where the ultimate goal of success supersedes egos and disciplinary turf,” Pullen said.

Dr. Rebecca J. Scharf , an assistant professor in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center, and an adviser to the Davis scholars, praised them for their dedication.

“Over the past year, we have been repeatedly impressed by the hard work and dedication that Emily, Lauren and Amanda have for this project,” Scharf said. “They are deeply committed to improving the lives of children with disabilities and are eager to learn about therapies and services for children with special needs. Their future career plans include working with children with unique needs, and this project will further their endeavors and training.”

The students are also active in other aspects of University life.

Nemec, a resident of Fairfax, is a Rodman Scholar. She has been a resident adviser for the Office of Housing and Residence Life for two years. A member of Alpha Omega Epsilon, the only engineering sorority on Grounds, she serves as one of the organization’s two philanthropy chairs and is a Madison House volunteer with Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy, which offers horseback riding therapy to those with special needs. She also works with local families as an aide for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder who attend the Virginia Institute of Autism.

Halacy, of Great Falls, wants to do development work in the third world, eventually founding her own nongovernmental organization focused on education or aiding victims of human trafficking. She is currently a member of Enactus, which applies business skills to social, economic and environmental problems. She is working on developing a Kenyan Women’s Jewelry initiative. She is also an Alternative Spring Break participant.

Baetsen, of Springfield, is a leader in the Cavalier Marching Band and on the executive committee of Relay for Life. She is a community service chair on the Engineering Student Council and social chair of Alpha Omega Epsilon. A Rodman scholar, she is a member of the Phi Eta Sigma Honor Society and received the Jepson Family Excellence in Engineering Scholarship. She is currently working in the Coulter Biomedical Engineering laboratory. She is interested in becoming a clinical engineer, serving as the bridge between doctors and technical engineering.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications