When she gave a workshop to parents of children with special needs 12 years ago, Laurie Levine had no idea it would lead to what she now calls “the most incredible journey” of her life.
A regional special education trainer for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES, Levine was contacted six years after the workshop by a participant, Alix Laager. Laager wanted to know if Levine would be interested in serving as a consultant to the government of Bhutan. The task was building a special education system for an entire nation from the ground up.
“At the time, the only special education services available in Bhutan were two schools: one for the blind and one for the deaf,” said Levine. “There were no services for children with other learning disabilities like attention deficit disorder, emotional disorders and more severe and complex disabilities.”
Children with issues like ADD were simply left to muddle through on their own in classes with 40 to 50 students, while students with severe disabilities were kept at home by their parents.
Tucked away in the Himalayan Mountains of Southeast Asia, Bhutan is a small country that elected its first Parliament in 2008. Laager and her husband, Ruedi, wanted to create a foundation to help the young nation develop special education services for its children.
With funding from the Laagers and working in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the Bhutan Foundation and the Youth Development Fund, Levine has travelled to Bhutan each summer for the past four years as a volunteer to train teachers, create special education resource centers and set up pilot schools.
“It has been the most fascinating thing I’ve done in 30 years in special education,” said Levine. “To start from scratch, to work in a country in a different culture, it has changed my life and I think it has made me better at what I do here. I’m a better listener. I’m more aware of people’s needs and I value collaboration more than ever before.”
One of the challenges the Bhutan Special Education Project has faced, Levine said, is that there are no colleges that teach special education in Bhutan and there are no speech, physical or occupational therapists in the country. In the whole country of about 700,000 people, Levine said there are about three or four people with special education degrees that they earned in Australia or India.
In the future, Levine said, the project would like to bring some people from Bhutan to the United States to study special education, speech and physical therapy. “We want to build capacity in Bhutan to allow the Bhutanese people to educate their own children including those with disabilities.”
One of the advantages they have in working toward this goal is that Bhutan “is a place where people really see the value of children and emphasize educating the whole child.”
As she prepares for her fifth summer in Bhutan, Levine said she is always looking for special educators and therapists who would like to travel with her and volunteer for some portion of the summer. At the same time, the Special Education Project is working to raise awareness among Bhutanese people about the importance of addressing the needs of children with disabilities.
“The Bhutanese people are wonderful people,” Levine said. “We are there as consultants, offering suggestions and guidance but it is up to the Bhutan Ministry of Education to determine how to best educate its children.”
— Submitted by Putnam and Northern Westchester BOCES