Christine Staple-Ebanks Brings a Message of Inclusion

April 29th, 2015

As I sat down at Christine Staple-Ebanks’ table, she was taking a big sip from a large cup of coffee. I ordered a drink of similar proportions. There was much to talk about, I realized, concerning the development and education of our children with disabilities.

Christine is the mother of four (although she truly does not look old enough). Her manner is composed, but as we talk she becomes immediately more passionate. First, she tells me the story of her youngest child.

Nathan Ebanks is now ten years old, and a student at Liberty Academy in Kingston. He was diagnosed with a birth defect – congenital diaphragmatic hernia – when she was five months pregnant with him. This is a serious (and rare) condition that results in severe breathing difficulties and could end in death without immediate treatment. Luckily, Nathan was in intensive unit right after birth, underwent corrective surgery at 2 days old, struggled for life after surgery, developed jaundice at ten days old, recovered and went home at twenty eight days old…

Failure to thrive caused major concerns after he went home and only seven months later he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, believed to be resulting from a loss of oxygen to the brain. The brain and muscles do not communicate properly, so there is a movement disorder, which means that the child is unable to manipulate his/her limbs independently.

For the first two years of Nathan’s life, his mother observes, she did not know what to do to help him. He had a therapist, regular checkups and the best care she could find here in Jamaica. However, when she saw local specialists here, “They talked about him as if he wasn’t there.” It was hard for her, her children and her husband to get advice and information on how to care for Nathan. They were getting nowhere. “I kept being told about all the things he would never, never, never do,” says Staple-Ebanks, “so I learned to close my ear to keep hope alive.”

They felt their son – and the family – was being short-changed. Then a breakthrough happened. After a visit to Health South, a rehabilitation hospital in Sunrise, Florida they saw “the first ray of hope.” The environment was bright, cheerful, empowering. There were exercises to do, a great deal of stimulation, and guidance on home management. The parents were trained and encouraged to “see their child” and look for their child’s strengths.

The family returned to Jamaica feeling encouraged and enlightened by what they had seen and experienced. “Our children – Jamaican children with disabilities deserve this too,” Staple-Ebanks tells me. She set up the Nathan Ebanks Foundation (NEF), a registered non-governmental organization. The aim was to try and simulate what she was able to get for her son, so that all Jamaican children and their families could learn and benefit from the knowledge, information and expertise that she had been exposed to.  She was convinced she could make a difference, naming the Foundation after her son because it was through him that she became aware of the huge challenges facing children with disabilities in Jamaica.

Staple-Ebanks then set to work. Through a small band of friends, her family and contacts she has made since she established the Foundation in 2007, she has found resources to train policy makers, teachers, parents and administrators through workshops, conferences and specialized forums to advance children’s rights and provide improved educational services for children with disabilities. Many of the experts she brings over come at greatly discounted rates; some even pay their own way. To date she operates on a shoestring budget: “We started up with no money…and it’s really only me full time with lots of volunteers,” concedes Staple-Ebanks, although she emphasizes she is fortunate to have the strong support of her family. Last year, the NEF partnered with the Ministry of Education to train thirty special education teachers in inclusive education for children with exceptionalities. Earlier this year the NEF held its Inaugural Corporate Engagement Breakfast Forum in partnership with the Office of the Children’s Advocate.

After they returned to Jamaica, “I noticed that Nathan had become invisible in school,” she notes. Teachers did not know how to teach him. This situation could not continue. She created a storybook (“I’m Just Like You, Only Different”) and used it to introduce his teachers and classmates in Kindergarten to the concept of inclusion. This was new to them, and it worked. Staple-Ebanks firmly believes that children with disabilities do better in regular school. She is very supportive of Liberty Academy and is helping them to create a parents’ support group.

The big ticket item for the NEF is the hosting of Jamaica International Inclusive Education Conference and Accessibility Expo, to take place from October 28-31, 2015 in Montego Bay. The conference will engage national attendees on the topics of making education inclusive and the concept of the “whole child,” from early childhood onwards. Other topics will include helping boys thrive; social emotional learning; project-based learning; and the Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-century schools, among other topics. With several expert speakers from the Johns Hopkins University, Full Circle Systems, iLead Schools and the Yale University Child Study Center, among others, the conference aims to discover new strategies for social innovation and inclusive education practices, review evidence-based practices and to work on the challenges and the positives of developing policies, curricula and community-based practices for inclusive education. The Expo will be “first of its kind” in Jamaica, says Staple-Ebanks, showcasing “accessible’ products from local and international companies.

One of the three pillars of the NEF’s work (in addition to Learning and Access/Accommodation) is Advocacy. This is often a hard and lonely road to travel, especially in a small society like Jamaica. Nevertheless Nathan’s mother prefers not to be “a part of the entrenched system,” which she believes must change to become inclusive of all of Jamaican’s citizens. She welcome supporters and those of like mind. She fiercely guards her independence, and her freedom to continue her work in the best interest of the children and their families. Being attached to one institution or another often“limits you,” she says. It is not easy. It can seem a thankless task – but once you have started down the advocacy road, it is hard to stop or turn back.

Staple-Ebanks was one of the US Embassy’s invitees to the recent Town Hall meeting at the University of the West Indies with President Barack Obama. His comments on education resonated with her: “Beyond the hype of President’s Obama’s visit,” she says, “I would wish for this solid message of inclusion to be carried so that all Jamaicans can take a cue. The President also spoke about investment in the people of a country as a means to building prosperity. He called upon governments and leaders to invest in early childhood education, to improve education and training and to create entrepreneurial opportunities so young people can find and take their place.”

It is very difficult, Staple-Ebanks adds, to attract funding for “those who are marginalized,” including children and young people with disabilities. She is thankful to good corporate sponsors such as Supreme Ventures and she has received support from a United Nations Volunteer to run aspects of the conference planning as well as to set up a crowd-funding site. She would like the corporate world to “see the importance of truly investing in social projects that will seek to uplift those who are left out, side-lined, marginalized and discounted. It has long been my view that we cannot as a nation achieve true prosperity and development, when a significant part of its population is left out of developmental planning.”

Inclusion. Equality. Empowerment. These words are in the Foundation’s vision statement. These are core values for Christine Staple-Ebanks – and her wish for all Jamaican children with disabilities and special education needs. For her, the key is information, knowledge development, access to resources, and guidance.

 

You may contact the Nathan Ebanks Foundation at 6 Montgomery Road, P.O. Box 2334, Kingston 8, Jamaica. Tel: (876) 857-4425; email: info@nathanshelpinghandsfoundation.org. Website: http://www.nathanshelpinghandsfoundation.org. Follow on Twitter @NEFJamaica and on Facebook.Mohttp://www.nathanshelpinghandsfoundation.orgntgomery Road
P.O. Box 2334
Kingston 8, Jamaica 00000
Jamaica
ph: (876) 857 4425
info@nathanshelpinghandsfoundation.org

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One Response to “Christine Staple-Ebanks Brings a Message of Inclusion”

  1. […] Christine Staple-Ebanks, who through her Nathan Ebanks Foundation tirelessly advocates for the empowerment of children with disabilities, offering training workshops for teachers, community members and parents. Almost a “one-woman band” with the support of family, she is an example of true dedication to the cause. I can’t see her giving up any time soon, and I wrote about here in my latest Gleaner blog: http://gleanerblogs.com/socialimpact/?p=2653  […]