It was late 2007 when I found myself in my doctor’s office being vaccinated prior to my first trip abroad to work with people who have disabilities. Dr. James Scheib inquired about my need for vaccines, and I explained that I had received a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, to develop inclusive programs for people with disabilities.
With a pensive look on his face, he mentioned that he had a nurse friend, Susan Saperstein, who set up a clinic to do HIV/AIDS relief work in Western Kenya. (Read more about it here.) He believed she had a special education teacher from that region who happened to be in Santa Barbara visiting. He flipped through his antiquated miniature address book, and wrote down Susan’s number for me. Little did I know that this moment would set in motion a whole chain of events that would eventually lead me to receive eight more vaccinations from Dr. Scheib earlier this year to prepare me for my own trip to a remote region in Western Kenya.
Later that evening, I called Susan and we discussed my trip to Bahrain. She confirmed that her friend, Benson Oswago, was indeed visiting Santa Barbara, and we set up a time that week for her and Benson to visit me at Kellogg School in the Goleta Union School District, where I teach. I chauffeured Benson and Susan around our campus showing them how students with significant disabilities are integrated into age-appropriate, general education classrooms. We discussed the team approach to inclusion at our school, and the metamorphosis the process has taken over the years. Benson and I parted ways with an understanding that one day we would collaborate in his village of Luanda — we did not know when, or how, but we knew we would make it happen. Bahrain had to come first. (Read about that mission in the Brent Does Bahrain series here.)
The primary focus of the project in Bahrain was to help people with disabilities lead more inclusive and self-directed lives. We wanted people with disabilities to garner more access to their families, schools, communities, and workplaces. In six short weeks, we found a tremendous amount of success. The goals are the same for our current project in Kenya, to develop sustainable inclusive practices in the region.
Since my initial embassy-supported trip to Bahrain in 2007, I have been fortunate enough to travel to a multitude of countries to support people with disabilities. I followed up the first Bahrain trip with a second visit six months later to verify the sustainability of our efforts. Four years later, and after a flurry of emails to the families we worked with, it was exciting to hear that a majority of the supports we developed were still in place, even with the recent events of the Arab Spring in Bahrain.
In 2009, I acquired a legal permit from the U.S. government to visit Cuba to document how people with disabilities are supported and included in a communist country. (Read about that trip here.) During the summer of 2010, I presented at the Inclusive and Supportive Education Congress (ISEC) in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on the sustainability of our 2007 project in Bahrain.
Four years after Bahrain, I wanted to immerse myself into a developing country, and see what I could do to better support people with disabilities. I emailed Benson about a potential project for the summer of 2011. He responded with enthusiasm, and informed me that he received a promotion and was now working as the director of special education for the western region of Kenya. This was extraordinary news for the sustainability of our upcoming work.
I began writing a grant to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi with the help of my friend and special education colleague Sally DeLyser. Knowing the chances of receiving funding were slim, especially with the decline of the economy, and the long list of preexisting needs within the Kenyan border, we wrote a grant nonetheless. Our grant was graciously declined by the U.S. Embassy, then by the United Nations, then by the World Health Organization, and still even by a few more NGOs. However, we knew our funding dreams were officially over when our grant was also rejected by the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. Each organization was supportive of our cause, and had justifiable reasons to put forth their funding efforts elsewhere. Going into this project, we understood that people with disabilities would more than likely take a backseat to more pressing global issues like HIV/AIDS, hunger, malaria, inaccessibility to clean water, and the like. Knowing this, I decided I should spend my summer in Kenya, regardless of the lack of funding.
After a long school year of a multitude of issues surrounding inclusion at my school, I felt a trip to Kenya would be just what I needed to shift my perspective about what is truly important for people with disabilities. I wanted to start the next school year with a refreshed perspective about what it means to support people with disabilities, and I wanted to see how people with so little can do so much. Kenya was the perfect solution to my jaded perspective.
I bought my ticket, and emailed Benson informing him of my arrival in Kenya on July 2. He agreed to pick my up at the Kisumu airport, and take me to the heart of Luanda. He arranged for me to stay at his brother’s compound just up the hill from the shores of Lake Victoria. While I am there, one of his sisters will be in charge of boiling hot water for my showers, and making sure that I have nice food to eat and clean water to drink. Luanda does not have running water or electricity, and will prove to be a humbling and life-changing experience. People with disabilities in this village are by far not the only ones with needs. Luanda has one of the highest incidence rates of people living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya, and Kenya ranks as one of the highest incidence rates in the world. There are also significant needs for clean water and food. Malaria, too, weighs heavily in this region of Kenya.
I have no expectations about what I am about to delve into, but I am sure that the people in Luanda will teach me more than I can ever expect to teach them. Living on the outskirts of Kenya in order to work with people with disabilities is a journey I cannot begin to wrap my head around. The only thing I can do is be thankful for the opportunity to be there, and share my experiences with those who care to listen.