June 11, 2009
By Julia Liu
Sixteen children sit in one classroom learning numbers, the alphabet and sign language. It's just another ordinary afternoon at CAM, Centro de Atencion Multiple (Multiple Service Center for disabled children), in Cozumel, Mexico.
The children are not the same age, or the same grade level. But they are all eager to learn. CAM is the only school on the island that focuses exclusively on special education for children who are mentally or physically disabled. Teachers develop a personalized program for each student according to the student's needs and abilities.
"They're happier than normal kids!" said Erin Starkebaum, a University of Nebraska — Lincoln student who was visiting the school with her international media class.
Some students were peeking curiously from behind doors and windows as the UNL class toured the school. Some others ran out and dragged the foreign visitors to join them on the playground. The language barrier did not stop the children from meeting new people and having fun.
The school is divided into morning and afternoon sessions, targeting kids of different ages and needs. Students from ages 14 to 22 attend the morning life skill classes, where girls learn sewing, handcrafting and braiding hair while boys learn wood working. In the afternoon, children of ages 6 to 13 learn how to read, write, and communicate along with other basic knowledge and skills. The afternoon session also includes physical therapy and developmental activities for babies and toddlers. There are currently 32 students in the morning and 82 in the afternoon.
"We receive all kinds of help (for the children), from the community and outside of Cozumel, to help the students grow and be independent," said Miguel Zetina, the afternoon director of CAM.
Some students' lives are changed forever in CAM.
Vanesa Tinal Galeana, age four, was able to stand for the first time in her life when she was given a child-size walker in January. Galeana was born with ankles too weak to support her body weight. CAM's physical therapist is now helping Galeana train her leg muscle and walk.
Larry Pedersen, a community volunteer, talked about the moment when he witnessed a little boy who stood for the first time. "How can you not get emotional about it?" he said. "You just have a ton of emotions seeing that!" Pedersen said he was unable to capture that moment on film because he was crying.
Galeana would still be in her wheelchair if it were not for the donation coming from SAIL, a non-profit group in the U.S.
Resources are limited on the island of Cozumel. Goods such as toilet paper and toothbrushes only come in on a ferry from the Mexican mainland. Child-sized walkers are not one of those goods. The physical therapists at CAM tried shortening the legs of an adult-sized walker, but it was too heavy for the little Galeana.
While CAM helps some students with their disabilities, some others are not so lucky. Yani Sanchez, who has two sons attending CAM, said she is not seeing much improvement in her children.
"They tried to teach something, but you don't see any advance in your children," said Sanchez, "It's like a nice, big kindergarten!"
Sanchez has been trying to find a better school for her 12 and eight year old sons somewhere else in Mexico. Many other families, however, cannot afford to leave the island.
For many disabled children in Cozumel, CAM is their only option for education. However, Zetina said the school needs help.
Students at CAM pay an optional fee of 150 pesos, about 12 dollars, a year. However, those who attend regular public schools pay about 50 dollars a year for school supplies. The low fees cannot cover all of CAM's expenses. When the plumbing broke earlier this year, the faculty member paid for the repairs out of their own pocket.
Zetina said the school is also in a constant need of consumable goods and educational toys for the younger children.
"We help the school access supplies and donors (in the U.S.). This really changes people's lives," said Karen Pedersen, Co-director of Cozumel Volunteer Connection. "I used to feel very bad for people, but when I see the children learning, I can see that they feel very blessed."