By: Amanda Willis
Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis has a rich history of providing assistance in rural Russia. After many visits to the country to provide training for educators who work with special needs students there, members of the Hennepin Avenue UMC Russia Partnership recently arranged for three Russian educators to spend two weeks in the Midwest engaging in a different type of learning.
The partnership formed in 1999 when church member and former Land O’Lakes CEO Ralph Hofstad organized a trip to Dmitrov, located just north of Moscow, to explore how the church could help. When the group returned, it decided to focus on three things: help the United Methodist Church in Russia, provide health and social services in the Dmitrov area, and work with youth.
Several times in the past, the Hennepin Avenue UMC Russia Partnership has sent an expert to the small town of Dmitrov to train local educators on working with autistic children and children with other developmental challenges. The group chose to work with autistic children because they knew the impact they could have would be significant.
But this time, members of the partnership wanted to be able to invite a few Dmitrov educators and therapists to come here. Three of them traveled to Minnesota and Iowa for a couple of weeks in July to receive more intense training provided by the Hennepin Avenue UMC Russia Partnership, Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Stillwater, and Stillwater Public Schools.
“Children who are at the lower end of the autism spectrum will benefit greatly from the training the therapists received,” said Leann Kispert, Hennepin Avenue UMC Russia Partnership committee chair. “They have the ability and potential to learn, work, and become productive, contributing adults in the future. The hope for children on the more extreme end of the autism spectrum is improved quality of life by teaching basic life skills and giving their caretakers practical techniques they can use on a daily basis.”
The trip was a long time in the works.
“It has been my dream for almost 10 years to bring them here because you have to see the work in action to be able to teach others,” said Marilyn Bauch, an autism expert and lifelong United Methodist from Traer, Iowa. Bauch has been traveling to Russia since 2003 and has gone on more than 20 trips to help teach educators there how to work with autistic and special needs children.
The three Russian visitors—Annya Kopylova, a classroom teacher; Natasha Ovechkina, a speech and language therapist; and Maria Chernova, an English teacher and interpreter—are all from the Island of Hope, a center for youth that provides education and social services.
"I couldn't really understand it, I hadn’t seen it, I didn't know if it would work with our children. Now I have seen it in action… and I know it works," Ovechkina said about the training she’s received.
Watching the educators work with children here was an eye opening experience for the women.
“They [learned] the basics of how to help children understand what we want them to do, how to work and communicate,” said Bauch. “When [the children] understand the expectations and can do the work, they feel successful.”
Bauch has been instrumental in coordinating their visit, including taking the women to her hometown of Traer, Iowa, for the Fourth of July holiday. While there, they visited a mainstream second-grade classroom of about 20 students, five or six of whom have special needs.
“In Russia, [many people] don’t understand the spectrum of autism,” Kispert said. “If anyone is labeled there, it is assumed they can’t learn...” The visitors found it helpful to see firsthand how teachers work with autistic students.
When the women return to Dmitrov, they will be able to teach and train other care providers based on what they learned about how to use visual systems with special needs children. The system consists of a small board with velcro strips on which the students can choose from various laminated images to put together short statements—for example, “I want / grape juice.” As time goes on, the statements become longer, and students begin to verbalize the sentences they’ve constructed.
“We don’t change the structures of educational systems of any other country, but by working with young teachers, young parents, and young children, we are truly transforming the lives of specific families,” Bauch said. “We are dropping a pebble in the lake, and the ripples are very large.”
An important piece of the women’s training was seeing how adults with autism and other developmental challenges secure full-time jobs because it demonstrated that there are lots of opportunities for people on the autism spectrum. They visited Opportunity Partners in Minnetonka, which helps adults with disabilities live, learn, and work within the community.
Funding for the women’s trip was provided by both Hennepin Avenue UMC and Courage Kenny. This year’s Easter offering at Hennepin Avenue UMC went toward funding the trip.
Recently, Lake Harriet United Methodist Church joined Hennepin Avenue UMC in the partnership. For more information about the group or to get involved, please contact Hennepin Avenue UMC Minister with Outreach and Youth Paula Colton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church