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Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Work Experience - The Children's Trust, Part 2

Following on from the good morning game, my next objective was to wheel one of the students around the building, delivering Christmas cards to the various classrooms. There were 4 or 5 classes, including FE - Further Education. The tragic nature of their conditions was even further amplified by seeing students my age, even older sometimes. To think these people were born in the same year as me really saddens me to see them in their current condition. But fortunately, the FE students also happened to be the students who had made the most recovery, which was simultaneously very heartening.

At lunch on that monday, I was invited to observe the feeding of non-residential students. The vast majority of the students reside in homes adjacent to the school, but 4 or 5 live nearby and so their parents pick them up everyday. The students who live on the Trust's premises return to their rooms for lunch and for a midday nap, but those who live elsewhere are fed in a separate room. I was uplifted to discover that all of these non-residential students were orally fed, as opposed to having the food delivered straight into the stomach via a tube. Feeding certainly appeared like a challenge, all but one of the students disliked being fed their food. Fortunately the one that did like it was able to feed herself - marvellous. With the other students, there was definitely an element of force-feeding involved, I suppose there has to be. One particular student had a condition where he constantly inflicted pain upon himself through thrashing his own head, or aggressively scratching his wrists. It was uncomfortable to watch, and he certainly seemed to be resisting the food. But the staff were all very lovely and patient, and when I say force-feeding I don't mean it with the aggressive connotation that the phrase brings with it, but instead with a patient and unsettled demeanour.

The day concluded with a visit from Santa Claus (smiles all around) and yes, it was a delightful experience to be able to help the children to open their presents. Even more so considering I received no such present from the white bearded one! Alas, on to day 2.

Day 2 started with the good morning game, as I once again imagined myself as one of those students off Glee. Fun times, I know. The focus of the morning, however, was the coffee shop that FE had set up for their Duke of Edinburgh award. Now, I've done Duke of Edinburgh Silver, and the expedition was the most gruelling 3 days of my life, thoroughly unenjoyable! To imagine FE would one day do an expedition of some sort was certainly very heartwarming. Students here have been known to walk stretches for other charity events, such as the Sports Relief Mile, so I presumed they would do a similar expedition soon. However the aim of this morning was to complete the other aspects of DofE that are required, as we piled into a classroom to be greeted by some FE students, who we could interact with either via spoken word or via their push-button switches. It was a touching morning seeing these students serve us tea, coffee and biscuits (albeit assisted by their carers) and reminded me once again of the thorough recovery that is possible.

Day 3 was among us, begun once again by the good morning game. Maybe I could start getting some choreography together...this morning we played sensory bingo, which I helped to make the day before. Instead of having a card of numbers, the students had a card of various material such as shells, corrugated paper, straws, glitter, pipe-cleaners and other objects which the students could feel to engage their sense of touch. Afterwards, we ate some peppermint creams which we, along with the students, had made the day before. The peppermint creams were a double whammy, for the students benefitted from the movement and senses involved in making them, as well as the enticing smell that peppermint creams have. My lunch that day involved observing the physiotherapy carried out on some students. This involved trying to help students move about on their own accord, either in a standing-wheelchair concoction, or with a walking frame. I wasn't able to observe it that week, but one of the Trust's proudest aspects of its curriculum is their hydrotherapy, where students are placed in a pool where they can move around facilitated by the presence of water. This type of physiotherapy is very widespread in treatment of sports injuries, for example, and it obviously had an important place in the Trust's curriculum. Plus they reportedly have all sorts of lights which they can turn on and off for a full sensory experience.

Day 4, surprisingly, did not commence with the good morning game. Instead, all the classes were invited into the main hall for a spot of wheelchair dancing. Yes. Wheelchair dancing. I had been informed of something similar earlier in the week, but was very much looking forward to seeing this for myself. We played musical wheelchairs, before dancing to Over the Rainbow and Lord of the Dance in choreographed unison. The dancing simply involved the carer (and me on one occasion) pushing the wheelchairs in lines or circles or whatever the choreography required. I have to be a bit sceptical of this, as the only benefit of this exercise I could think of was the rush of wind on the students' face, similar to the fan in the good morning game. But altogether it was a fun activity to watch and participate in, and I'm sure the change of immediate environment would have been advantageous to the students in some way or another.

Day 5 began with snow, and the gloomy white of outside certainly proved an ominous setting for the day. As it had transpired, a student had, unfortunately, passed away some time during the night, and was discovered only about 20 minutes before I arrived by an unexpecting nurse. All the staff were extremely upset - it is such a tight-knit community at the Trust and the bond between staff and students is very strong, particularly between individual carers and their students. Many of the staff were in buckets of tears, and what made it all worse was that the death had been very unexpected, and the exact cause was unknown. I had known this boy, he was in the feeding I observed on monday and was only a year younger than me - I was certainly very moved by his passing, and the whole event really emphasised the fragility and sanctity of life in everyone, especially those with an acquired brain injury here at the Trust.

Class 2, and the rest of the school, was short on staff today. Many were tied up with dealing with the unfortunate death, and many others were affected in such a way that they needed to visit the on-site counsellor, or return home for the day. So with a rather sombre start to the day, our teacher encouraged us to try and not dwell on it, as we burst into song for the good morning game, before playing some more sensory bingo and wrapping some Christmas presents. Today was the last day of term, and all week we had been helping the students to prepare a gift-goodie-bag with all kinds of objects the students could present to their loving and caring families. A nice sentiment.

As I entered the final couple of hours of my tenure at the Trust, we all proceeded into the main hall for an end-of-term Christmas service. The service was a mournful affair due to the unfortunate events of that day, but I was still incredibly moved by the turnout of parents and relatives. I myself am a Christian, and it was extremely heartening to view all of these relatives who, despite what has happened with their child, had a strong faith in God. Whether you are religious or atheist, I believe one has to respect the utmost loyalty and devotion they show, not only to their religion, but to their sons and daughters. There are cultures around the world where disabled children are discarded, and fortunately this was definitely not one of them.

And so my week was up. It was enjoyable - I got to do a lot of singing (I'm still awful), I was touched by the realities of the lives I saw, and I also learnt a lot on the medical side of things. And there was no better way to end things than by seeing swarms of families connect with their children with their loving care and deep hearts. A beautiful sight.

Thanks for reading,

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Work Experience - The Children's Trust, Part 1

I would like to use this blog post today to write about a week of work experience I did last December at The Children's Trust's School For Profound Education. The Children's Trust is a large-scaled charity very close to my home, that provides care, education, therapy and rehabilitation to children with an acquired brain injury (through a car accident or a viral infection, for example). I spent a week in the Trust's school which the children attend daily. The charity's website can be located here.

I have always had a strong family connection to the charity, as my mother is a perennial fundraiser and I myself have gotten involved organising a few quiz nights to raise money over the years. It seems to be the local charity of choice, and nearly everyone in the village is aware of it and all generously support it. However, despite all of this, I had never actually been to the Children's Trust's grounds, let alone see what happens inside. Shocking, I know.

To be honest, I had never really considered the sorts of children who resided there. Even eating breakfast on the morning I started, I assumed these children only suffered severe 'learning difficulties' of sorts. To put it less bluntly, my expectation of what these children would be like was a very underdressed image indeed. Even more shocking, I know - as I was soon to discover.

So on a freezing December monday morning, I lumbered up to the main reception (absolutely lavish building) where, soon enough, I am taken over to the school, a good 300 metres away. The grounds are enormous. If I didn't already know, I'd assume I had entered a palace! The school was a cosy little block in the middle of it all, and it wasn't long before I was introduced to Class 2 - the classroom I would be helping in during the week. My immediate impressions - overdressed! Unsure of the dress code, I had gone for the timeless smart-casual look of a shirt, a v-neck and some jeans. But it appeared my colleagues-to-be had not received such a memo, instead deciding to deck out in sweatpants and baggy hoodies. Were these pyjamas? Either way, I felt like a pretentious snob...

They seemed nice enough however, offering me tea and biscuits, seconds after the customary "hello I am.." The students themselves were not in the classroom at this point, they were being transported from the residential buildings next door. But when they did the place was packed. Each student has a personal carer, and there were a multitude of physiotherapists, occupational therapists, linguistic therapists,  classroom assistants, nurses, volunteers and teachers. Altogether? About 4 staff a pupil (luckily not all worked in the classroom at the same time!) Wow. I was expecting my class to be similar to my own one at school - a decent number of children. But I was stunned to see my class had no less than 4 pupils. 4!

Admittedly beforehand when I was told my role would include "helping out around the classroom", I had dandy visions of helping the children to colour in pretty pictures of flowers, or play hopscotch, even sing Ring a Ring o'Roses with them. But my hopes of such an experience were dashed immediately by their physical condition. I was truly shocked to see all of the students were wheelchair-bound, unable to communicate any language other than a few involuntary noises, and with all sorts of physical twitch - their arms would swing around in the air, they would jerk their heads and drool. It was a very unpleasant feeling that came over me next, as I realised the suffering these children must be going through, and the suffering that the parents go through on a daily basis. Note, all of the children suffer from an acquired brain injury. At one stage in their lives, these children were perfectly healthy, but unfortunately had suffered a catastrophic tragedy that had left them in their current state. I wondered if these children were aware of their current condition, or if they were mentally and emotionally trapped in their body.

I tried to make contact with one of the two girls. Encouraged that they would respond to stimuli, I stroked the her hand, calling her name and greeting her. She seemed responsive enough, turning to face me and (I think) offering me a heartening smile. It made me realise that not all hope was lost, and I remembered the success stories the Trust had conjured. Men and women struck down in traffic accidents, severely brain damaged, but recovering to full functionality and becoming part of the working community. These are certainly encouraging stories.

The first task of the day, as it was everyday, was the good morning game. Before I proceed, I should say that the curriculum of this school is not one that you would find at my school, for instance. The students do not sit learning the nuances of biology and chemistry and maths all day. Instead their curriculum focuses on their rehabilitation: of speaking, of listening, of walking. The good morning game consists of the staff in the room (about 8 of us at this point) singing lyrics of "good morning" and other phrases, to the tune of a nursery rhyme. The aim is to greet each student personally, in order that they (hopefully) respond by attempting to say good morning back. I was struck when one student did indeed repeat blurred words to that effect. The second part of this game focuses on object-interaction - the main teacher holds up a sari, a fan and a mirror before singing a collective song about these as well (yes, I thought it was madness too). Each student had, on their wheelchair tables, a large button which they could press that, on contact, would relay to a speaker along with the words "[X] wants to play!" and, although it took a few fair moments, one student did actually push the button. The songs about the objects would then be repeated and the student would have to choose one by saying the name of the object. This next part positively surprised me because the student, and everyday that week, promptly made a noise that effectively resembled one of those objects. It was amazing to see these children aren't completely isolated in their thoughts! So anyway, yes, a sari - to be placed over the student, who would realise this to be an 'uncomfortable' situation, and try to wiggle out of it; a mirror - to be placed in front of the student so they can see their reflection; and a fan - to be blown at the student, who would wiggle their face in amazement. And yes, each object had their own individual song. I was beginning to wonder whether I really was in a neurorehabilitation centre, or had unknowingly floated into a West-End production of Mamma Mia. All jokes aside though, it was clear the songs had a proven function, so I was happy to singalong.

So that was my initial experience, come back soon for the second instalment of my week at the Children's Trust!
Thanks as ever,