ELP changes lives at Perkins and around the world

A smiling group of ELP teachers pose in front of Niagra Falls.

As her colleagues marveled at the brilliant colors—sharp reds, oranges, yellows and greens—in the changing leaves of fall foliage, Szilvi Hegedus ran ahead. The dull roar of falling water grew from a faint trickle to an ominous surge, until the sound of millions of gallons of water cascading over the Niagara Falls filled her ears. And the sight of the majestic waterfall, wrapped like a present in a rainbow, brought tears to her eyes.

"It has always been my father's dream to see it," Hegedus said. Before she left Hungary to attend Perkins' Educational Leadership Program (ELP), Hegedus' father told her that if she went to America, she had to visit the NiagaraFalls. Her eyes would be his, he told her.

So Hegedus and eight other ELP participants—hailing from such far-flung locations as Brazil, India, South Africa and Thailand—climbed into a van and drove through the night to the U.S.-Canadian border, where they experienced one of the great natural wonders of the continent.

Having fulfilled a wish in her family two generations old, Hegedus returned to Perkins' Watertown campus. As part of the Educational Leadership Program's class of 2012-'13, she and her colleagues—13 in all—will spend up to nine months at Perkins studying the latest methods and technology in the field of blindness education. The program combines seminars, conferences and hands-on experiences in Perkins' classrooms and students' residences, and is the equivalent of a masters-level curriculum for teachers of the visually impaired.

Hegedus has worked as a special education teacher at the Deafblind Program at Vakok Altalanos School, in Budapest, Hungary, since September 2011. So the concept of lending her vision to those who can't see is something that's all too familiar for her, whether it's gazing in awe at the Niagara Falls for her father or teaching children who are blind.

During her time at Perkins, Hegedus will learn new techniques, technology and strategies that will help her better work with her often challenging students back home. Yet, while Hegedus' ultimate focus is the knowledge she'll gain, right now she's equally excited about all the new things she can experience in America.

That excitement goes both ways. Hegedus and her fellow teachers are here for only a short time, but the enthusiasm and expertise they bring with them will have lasting effects on the students and staff at Perkins.

New discoveries

"In India, all that I hear about America is Washington, D.C. and New York City," said Ruchi Dixit, a founding staff member of SANKALP Pediatric Rehabilitation Center in Rajastan, India. "I have to see these places for myself."

Though she plays a pivotal role in the day-to-day operations of her center, Dixit was encouraged by her colleagues at the Vidya Sagar, in Chennai, India to take the ELP sabbatical, and then return with all of the new knowledge she's gained. In India, the complex collaboration between government agencies, schools, parents and specialists can sometimes be fraught with obstacles, but Dixit said her network of parent volunteers at the center is strong and will do just fine during her absence.

"(My colleagues) told me, 'Don't worry about us here in India; just learn what you need to at Perkins and give us updates!'" she said.

Hegedus of Hungary, who was encouraged to join the Educational Leadership Program by Monika Toth (ELP, 2000-2001) and Krisztina Katona (ELP, 1998-1999), both directors at Vakok Altalanos, has already made some headway in learning the necessary skills. She said she's starting to change her perspective about how to deal with difficult children after just a few weeks at Perkins. In Hungary, she had struggled to find the best way to cope with students' anxiety.

While working in one of the Perkins' cottages, she noticed the technique a teacher's assistant (TA) used to calm an anxious girl who was throwing a tantrum. The TA told the young girl to give herself a big hug and take deep breaths. Lo and behold, it worked.

Later that evening, Hegedus was caring for her and she began to have an anxiety attack yet again, sprawling out on the floor and refusing to take her nightly shower. Hegedus did not panic. She simply employed the same technique she had witnessed earlier. Sure enough, the young girl calmed down, stood up and willingly went into the shower. "I thought, 'Wow! I did it!'" Hegedus said.

"I've learned how to build communication with the children," she said. "It's not something as precise as a recipe; it's an attitude. I already feel I've changed my view on how to deal with the children. Be more patient, for example."

Priceless lessons

Hegedus and her fellow teachers also get exposure to cutting-edge technology now being used in Perkins' classrooms. Such equipment may not be available in their home countries for several years, but it gives them a glimpse of the evolving future of blindness education.

Lacramiorara Lupulescu from Romania was amazed by the brand-new Philips Light Aide, she said. It's a portable grid of powerfully bright, multicolored LED bulbs that can be used to assess a child's usable vision, and teach low-vision students everything from arithmetic to pre-reading skills. Lupulescu used one at the annual Association for Education and Rehabilitation (AER) convention in Newport, R.I., and also on the Perkins campus.

"We perform visual stimulation in Romania, but I am learning how better to assess children's vision from my experiences with the lightbox," she said. "Our center can't afford such equipment now, but the lessons are priceless."

One of the other lessons Lupulescu said she will take back to the Speranta Center, where she has worked as an educational psychologist since 2007, is to be silent while assessing how children use the limited vision they have.

"Usually, we spoke and gave directions—what to do, where to look," she said. "Here, we learned to be quiet and let the child use their vision freely. We can then observe how they see, their preference for certain colors and if they want to look up or down." Such insights can help teachers better tailor lesson plans and other activities for each student's unique abilities, she said.

The wow factor

Ester Turnip had never experienced snow before. Hailing from Indonesia, she was wowed by the powdery flakes that fell during a November Nor'easter that hit Watertown.

"I didn't care that it was cold! I took too many pictures of the snow and posted them on Facebook," she said. "One of my friends from back home commented on the post: 'Wow, SNOW!'"

As Turnip said the word "wow," she formed W's with both of her hands and held them on either side of her face, awe-struck to signify an "O."

During her stay in the ELP house near Perkins' campus, Turnip said she learned about the profound effects a functional communication assessment can have on a student's educational success. The assessment is a review of a student's daily activities, cognition, mobility, senses and psychosocial behavior, and is used to help design each student's individualized education program (IEP).

At the Rawinala School in Jakarta, where she works as a teacher of children with multiple disabilities, including deafblindness, Turnip must create IEPs for each of her students. With a new awareness of the insights that can be gleaned from carefully observing each student's behaviors, she said, "I want to implement the use of functional communication assessment when I return to Indonesia."

An added bonus

As part of the celebration that marked their arrival at Perkins, members of the ELP class put on a variety show in the Howe Building on campus. The show consisted of skits that showcased the culture of each teacher's respective country and revealed their humorous opinions about America, both before and after arriving here.

After they performed several choreographed dance numbers to native melodies, the teachers requested the classic rock song, "Twist and Shout." As it boomed out over the speakers, they invited their new local friends, the staff of Perkins International, onstage to dance.

As everyone twisted to the song, the foreign visitors spilled into the crowd and encouraged everyone to get to their feet. Spurred on by their contagious energy, students and teachers joyfully danced to the music. When the song ended, the excitement ebbed, but all had been changed by the experience.

Perhaps the same was true when the ELP participants joined together and drove through the night to reach Niagara Falls. The spectacular waterfall was the show they came to see, but the glorious rainbow overhead was the surprise that changed them forever.

"As the boat approached the waterfall and we saw the rainbow in the mist above, all that I could say was 'WOW,'" said Turnip, holding two W-hands to her O-face.

To take the metaphor one step farther, sharing knowledge with teachers from around the world about how to improve the lives of children who are blind, that's Perkins' Niagara Falls. How these teachers from far away brighten the lives of Perkins' students and staff—that's the unexpected rainbow.

TAYLOR ANNE SNOOK contributed to this story.