Early this year, Arc members Amy Hewitt from Institute on Community Integration, and Sandy Beddor visited Zambia, met families and individuals with disabilities and made connections with government and education professionals. It was during this time when a learning exchange between the two formalized.
Following that agreement, late last month on March 28, a delegation of 10 Zambians came to the Twin Cities for an intensive two-week leadership training program in disability advocacy, services, and policies. Members in the delegation came from the Zambian Ministry of Education, Bouleni Street Kids, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, Little Sisters of St. Francis from the Diocese of Livingston, Hidden Voice School, Parents Partnership Association, Sisters of Charity, Province of Zambia, Franciscan Friars of the Proto-Martyr, and The Makeni Formation Program.
The delegation visited the home of Katy and Scott Thuleen in Golden Valley who invited them to their home to see the modifications they have made to their home inside and outside over the years to make it more accessible for their son Zack, who has disabilities. During this visit in which the African News Journal was also invited separately, Zambians saw how the determination and unwavering support of Thuleen family for their son finally paid off for the betterment of his life, and what they called ‘government and community working hand in hand’.
“The whole house was re-designed for Zack,” said his mom, Katy Thuleen, speaking to the Central African visitors. Katy show them both old & new design of the house and the new look, two entrances to the house to accommodate Zack’s convenience all the way to Zack’s room to the kitchen and bathroom. He can easily access every part of the house.
“Zack was born 9 weeks premature and very much on life support,” Mrs. Thuleen said. “We struggle for lot of learning and he started using of wheelchair by the age of 3,” she said. Currently Zack, who is the eldest of Thuleen’s 3 children (2 sons & 1 daughter) and a teenager now is very much in control of his daily life.
When asked Zack’s experience at school in his early age or if he had friends, Katy said that she worked hard on providing information about his disabilities to Zack’s classmates, teachers and everyone who needs to know. “We informed everyone to learn his condition and understand the limitations when they get that information, they tend to feel at ease and confident of doing the right thing.” So, it is important to communicate with the people you think your child will have contact with and build a relationship with them. She said that Zack still has friends from his childhood.
“Minnesota is the second State in the Union that has adaptive athletics,” said Zack’s dad, Scott Thuleen. Therefore, he said, Zack is very much active. He is a member of Young Life and others organizations. Young Life picks him up every Friday afternoon along with other kids with disabilities. He said, they work somewhat similar to a club membership. All the kids are members with the organization and basically want to do the same activity.
Coincidentally Zack’s grandfather was a banker by trade, at the same time he use to volunteer an organization that help the causes of disabilities. He was the President of the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Minnesota. It was during this time when Scott Thuleen first experienced about the disability communities as he occasionally join his father to the association’s work.
Sharing some of the memorable events between Zack and his father, Scott told us, one day his other son and friends were playing football while Zack and him watching them. He then asked Zack if he wished to be part of the game and playing with them. Zack replied “ Dad, I can do that if I want to. My wheelchair takes me wherever I want.” Then, his dad said, “Zack when you die you will go to heaven?” Then Zack replied, “Everyone is on wheelchair in the heaven.”
During their stay it is expected to cover training on topics/tours ranging from early intervention, family support, faith based initiatives, policy fundamentals on how public policy drives services and funding and tours of Opportunity Partners vocational training programs; St. David’s early childhood and family support programs and so on. This is a learning exchange of best practices, policies, and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Trainers from the Twin Cities partner organizations will travel to Zambia in this summer to provide technical assistance, coalition building, and additional training.
Grace Banda of Zambian Ministry of Education said that since 1993 the government’s attitude towards disability children has changed. Now, all the schools are required to accommodate for the special needs children. She said that her ministry regularly partners with the NGO’s for training, monitoring, funding and other resources that is helpful to them. “ Parents in this country strongly advocate for their children,” said Mikala Mukongolwa, a member of the Zambian delegation & the Director of Bouleni Street Kids, a center that holds nearly 900 kids, one third of that are children with special needs. She said that she happy to meet this family and learn their struggle from early on.
“What we witnessed today is what I felt deep in my heart all along when I was in Zambia that our government is not doing what they were suppose to do to help our disability children. I see in this house and wherever we visited so far, strong advocacy from parents and positive government response,” she added.