Of all the gifts she has received, the country of Guatemala gave Dr. Jennifer Grisham-Brown her greatest one – the gift of her son. After his adoption, she yearned for a way to pour her heart into a place that had filled hers.
That desire gave birth to a mission that is helping orphans and at-risk children in Guatemala, and also impacting students at the University of Kentucky College of Education.
The story begins in the mid 1990s, when a UK graduate student in early childhood education was babysitting a boy adopted from Guatemala. She would drop by the college for visits with faculty, sometimes bringing him along. One day she passed Grisham-Brown in the hallway and mentioned the boy’s parents, Brenda Riddle and Larry Ledbetter, had started an adoption agency. Grisham-Brown became one of their first clients.
In 1998, she brought home 4-month-old Kendall. Soon, he and two children Riddle and Ledbetter had adopted from Guatemala were attending the Early Childhood Lab at UK, where Grisham-Brown has served as faculty director since 2000.
Six years later, while balancing their professional careers and parenting roles, Riddle and Grisham-Brown felt ready to put what was in their hearts into action and formed a steering committee. Admittedly, they had no idea what they were doing. Yet, they soon had an attorney and were going through the legal process of starting a non-profit in Guatemala.
Orphanages in Guatemala were subsidized by adoption fees, but, around this time, the country was closing its doors to international adoption, leaving many orphanages with no better option than to close. Grisham-Brown and Riddle took their children on a trip back to Guatemala in 2006 to explore possibilities, where they visited an orphanage that was running out of funds. By the end of the day, they knew it was the place where they were supposed to work.
“We are a faith-based organization and it was a leap of faith to take this step, but we felt convicted this was what we’re supposed to do,” Grisham-Brown recalls.
The orphanage had nothing — It was a stark contrast from the Early Childhood Lab at UK.
“They were really just keeping the children fed,” Grisham-Brown said.
She took a sabbatical from her role as a professor in the UK College of Education, and the co-founders put together a team of people who could travel to Guatemala, many of whom have roots at UK.
“The children had never been to school. We hired a tutor to try to support them,” Grisham-Brown said. “We set up a child development room with hands-on toys and materials, and we provided training with staff on how to interact with the children. They had been serving in a role that was not even good childcare, but they were doing the best they could.”
They changed the name to Hope for Tomorrow Children’s Home. In 2009 Grisham-Brown applied for an international start-up grant from the College of Education and, with the help of a master’s degree student, developed an education abroad program. Soon, the first group of early childhood education undergraduate and graduate students made their way to Guatemala, and UK students have gone every year since.
Among the reforms taking place in Guatemala, the government decided orphans must attend school. During one of their first trips, Grisham-Brown and other volunteers visited schools where they could place children.
“We were able to find schools for the older children and those with disabilities, something I have great interest in,” Grisham-Brown said. “But for the preschoolers, I was just mortified at the quality of the programs we were looking at there. I knew I couldn’t make any changes for the children in Guatemala if I didn’t do something about this. I had made a lifetime commitment to this place and knew I had the right connections to support the development of a preschool.”
So, at the same time they were working to become accredited as a children’s home, they also began the accreditation process to become a pre-school through the Guatemalan government.
The pre-school has provided a natural way for UK to develop an international partnership, and the ideas for collaborations never end.
Some UK students do student-teaching in Guatemala, and about 10 UK students earn credit through their work at the pre-school each summer. Three have done research there, and another doctoral student will be in Guatemala doing research next summer.
While working at the children’s home and pre-school, UK students do individual assessments and write goals, develop interventions, make improvements to the environment for children and staff at the children’s home, and do trainings with the staff.
“It matures them and opens their minds to thinking differently about children in different cultures,” Grisham-Brown said.
In a short span of time, UK’s interaction with the orphanage enabled the children to go from having no schooling at all to attending a school with access to resources from a research university.
“The day we moved into the new Early Childhood Lab facility at UK, on that very same day, we opened our preschool in Guatemala in a new location,” Grisham-Brown said. “It was amazing to see that parallel, in a place where there’s such poverty and children with the most horrific stories. They’re benefitting from an education that’s near the quality that we’re providing at this university, and it’s just the most gratifying thing in the world.”
For some children, UK’s interaction with the school has been life-altering — especially for one boy, Carlos. When the team first visited the orphanage in 2006, Carlos stayed in a crib all day long. He has cerebral palsy and had obviously been placed in the orphanage by mistake. But, it was a fortunate mistake because he otherwise would have been in an institution for children with disabilities, with perhaps even more stark conditions.
“The first person who started going would take him out of the crib and let him interact with the other children,” Grisham-Brown said. “Carlos understood a lot more than we thought he did. We started taking things down there for him, including a walker, because he had been mirroring other children in pulling up to stand. Through our assessments, we discovered that, although he couldn’t talk, he understood everything people said. And, even though his hands didn’t work well, he showed incredible problem-solving skills in putting puzzles together.”
They found a place for Carlos to receive physical therapy. He got even better with his walker and was eventually potty trained. When students and volunteers visited, they would focus on Carlos, giving him pictures to communicate. Grisham-Brown became convinced she needed to find a way to get Carlos into a regular school – not a special education school, one where he wouldn’t be challenged. But that was unheard of for a student with cerebral palsy in Guatemala.
“I approached the principal of the school where the rest of the kids were going,” Grisham-Brown recalls. “I just started begging and was talking really fast. I finally paused and she said, ‘Well, we have been wanting to try to start inclusion. We have been looking for a child, and we think Carlos is that child.’”
Carlos started at La Patria School the month the school turned 100 years old. He was their first-ever student with a disability.
“This past summer, a UK student with a special education background trained Carlos to use a Picture Exchange Communication System,” Grisham-Brown said. “She also had a new, donated iPad for him. With these tools, Carlos is now even more meaningfully included. She concentrated on him for 10 days and worked with staff and teachers in Carlos’ classroom so this could happen for him. None of this would have happened if not for the relationship with UK.”
Hope for Tomorrow Children’s Home is a ministry of Adopt!Inc., a non-profit organization. To learn more, visit www.hope4tomorrow.net.