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Vickroy: She’s on a mission for change

A group phoall outreach ministry leaders who work serve educate people with disabilities around world with help Elim Christian School

A group photo of all of the outreach ministry leaders who work to serve and educate people with disabilities around the world with the help of Elim Christian School in Palos Heights. | Supplied photo

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Updated: August 23, 2014 6:32AM



Lucia Mambure is determined to do the seemingly impossible in her home city of Harare, Zimbabwe: open a school for children with special needs.

The professor and mother of three is a progressive voice in a country where attitudes about people with disabilities can be primitive. She was in the United States recently to observe the folks at Elim Christian School in Palos Heights and meet with other leaders of the school’s international outreach program.

“Where I come from, many people are afraid of people with disabilities,” she said. The disabled, she said, are shunned, locked inside and often considered a curse on the family.

Mambure knows this first hand. Her oldest son, Tapona, has cerebral palsy. And while he has been able to attend school with his brothers thus far, Mambure has been notified several times that because he has turned 14, he will not be allowed to attend after this term. School ends for disabled children at this age, she said.

“What a child like that means to us is that you are stuck. You can’t go to work because without a school, where will you leave that child? You can’t visit your relatives. They don’t want him, they are afraid their kids will catch what he has,” she said. “You can’t do anything. But you need to support and feed your other children, too.”

One mother she knows leaves her child chained to a tree while she works in the field. “She is afraid if she leaves him unchained he will disappear or start a fire,” she said. It is a common predicament in a country where, either because their husbands abandon them or they are trying to start a new life in a new land, many single mothers struggle to fend for themselves and their children, she said.

Mambure, who years ago successfully started four family support groups for parents of children with special needs, believes that all people have value, that everyone deserves an education and that children like her son have been created in God’s image. That, too, is the mission of Elim.

She is determined to enlighten the people of Harare and the professionals at Elim are determined to help.

“When I first came here in 2010 and saw Elim, that’s when I knew this thing was possible,” Mambure said.

Through its donor-funded outreach program, Elim has given Mambure and others like her around the world support, training and materials.

“We communicate every month and sometimes every week, asking questions. They give us answers,” Mambure said. “Even though we are thousands and thousands of miles away, we can just call or email (or Skype) and ask them questions. That has been huge for me and for us.”

With Elim’s help, Mambure was able to develop a home-based training program for parents. So far, they have addressed such topics as communication, behavior and toileting, said Jenna Hania, International Outreach Coordinator for Elim.

Elim’s long history of educating and serving the disabled has made it a much sought after resource for people trying to change attitudes and access around the world. Through its outreach program, Hania said, Elim helps dedicated ministry leaders run programs in Nicaragua, India, Thailand and other parts of Africa. The leaders come to Elim to visit and observe and Elim staffers visit them in their countries to assess progress, develop strategies and offer support and advice.

Hania said much of the developing world struggles to find value in people with disabilities.

“A lot of factors influence perception toward disability,” Hania said. “A lot of it has to do with productivity. If you are in a community that is struggling to survive in general, your priorities are not going to be focused on people who are struggling the most. On top of that, in a lot of the communities we visit, disability is seen as such a shameful experience. Sometimes it has to do with the cultural or spiritual perspective. This is a curse. Or this is a result of sin. Because that is a pretty predominant perspective, a lot of families are ashamed to let people know they have a child with disabilities.”

Hania said while such attitudes might seem shocking and hard for us to grasp, it wasn’t so long ago that Americans held the same point of view.

“We don’t do that now but early in the 1900s that’s what we looked like too,” she said. “People wouldn’t come out of their homes. It was really a shameful thing.”

She credits the special education movement and the Special Olympics movement with bringing an awareness that people with disabilities have a place in our community.

“The story of Elim is very similar to the story of many of the people who reach out to us for help in the ministry program,” she said.

Elim was founded in the basement of a church in Englewood in the 1940s by parents who had a son with disabilities and wanted a Christian education for him. They sought out other families who wanted the same education and it grew into a school, she said.

“At Elim, our job is to walk with these people and find their gifts and to create a space for that to thrive. We believe that everyone has value and that people with disabilities should be served with dignity. Productivity is not our goal, it’s to love one another. So how do we love one another? We give each other the space and tools to be who we are. That’s the same for people with disabilities,” she said.

It’s not always easy, she added. “It’s a challenge. It stretches us.”

Complicating Mambure’s efforts is the severe lack of resources in Zimbabwe. In 2008, the country suffered a political and economic meltdown. Many of the professionals fled the country, leaving an infrastructure of buildings but few to run the schools and hospitals and even fewer to supply the government with the funds it needs to operate such institutions.

Just before the collapse, in 2007, Mambure approached the minister of education about opening a school for children with disabilities. She said the school psychologist told her, “My sister, if you can prove that these kids can learn then we can go and talk to the minister because when I talk to him about opening a school for them he says it is a waste of resources.”

Money is hard to come by in her nation that operates on a multi-currency basis, allowing residents to pay for goods with whatever money they have, from euros to yen, her chances of getting financial help seem especially bleak.

“When you don’t have a lot it becomes survival of the fittest. What that means is that those who are able-bodied get everything,” Mambure said.

Still, she is determined.

A school would help all of the children, especially those that are high functioning and who can become independent, realize their potential and find a place in society, she said.

It would dispel myths and open minds. And it would give parents time to work, study or just relax from the high pressure job of being a constant caregiver.

Hania is confident that if anyone can affect change in Harare, Mambure can.

“The people who run the ministries that we work with, most of them are women, have been incredibly successful,” she said.

For example, Geeta Mondol, a ministry leader in India, has started a program for children with autism. Similarly, Michelle Adams has tapped Elim’s expertise on data collecting for the program she works with in Nicaragua, Carolyn Buma has lead the ministry in Thailand. And Maddy Manden, who had been helping to develop a program in Rwanda with Elim’s support, has just returned to the United States to pursue more education.

“They are the driving force,” she said. “We are super-intentional about not having a harmful presence. We are not there to show them how to do things, just to simply be there to supply support and answer questions.”

Elim Christian Services is at
13020 S. Central Ave., Palos Heights; (708) 389-0555; www.elimcs.org/



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