July 9, 2003 — For ten days this month, nine University of Utah students and one U assistant professor will be providing community service and interacting with students with disabilities at the Santigo V. Gonzales School, in Las Piedras Negras (Black Rocks), Mexico, across the Eagle Pass, Texas border.
While at the school, located three hours by bus across the border from San Antonio, the students, who are studying special education, physical and occupational therapy or related fields surrounding special and diverse populations, will make repairs to the school’s classrooms and install an accessible playground. In addition, they will conduct a free, five-day camp for the school’s children, teach interested parents about basic hygiene and answer questions about their children’s disabilities. Joined by other Wasatch Front high schoolers and college coeds, the U students will also distribute hygiene kits and clothing to the Casas de Carton (Cardboard City), the community’s version of a homeless shelter.
All this is part of the Special Education Service Learning Mexico Project (SLMP) or “The Mexico Project,” which will take place July 11 through 21.
“The beauty of this program is that it is a collaborative project, with funding provided by the students, the Kickapoo Tribe (the indigenous people of the area), Utah Rotarians (Sandy City, St. George and Ft. Union/Midvale groups), Mexico Rotarians (Piedras Negras group), a variety of agencies, including the Physical Therapy Association, YouthLINC and the student section of the University of Utah Council for Exceptional Children,” explains Patricia Santistevan Matthews, clinical instructor in the U’s Department of Special Education. Matthews and colleagues Robin Marcus, assistant professor of physical therapy at the U, and adjunct faculty member Nancy Inaba, an occupational therapist, piloted the Gonzales School project last year.
“Students will learn about diversity issues,” says Matthews, adding that this year five of the students will receive university credit for completing the course, which helps them connect the needs of students with disabilities and immigrant and English language learner populations. “The students work directly with both the Mexican teachers and their students. This gives them an immersion experience, which is difficult to get here in Utah.”
Matthews explains that last year students gained insight into the cultural and educational issues affecting immigrant parents. “We found that there are a lot of parents in Mexico who are anxious to cross the border to get help for their disabled children because the minimal services that are currently offered are so costly, often amounting to one-third a parent’s monthly income,” she notes. “We have a 10-year commitment there. Many families have difficulty getting their exceptional children in regular Mexican schools because of their special learning needs. Schools often don’t yet have ramps and are not wheelchair accessible, which is another problem.”
Matthews says the experience also helps university students practice basic language terminology. “For example, ‘autismo’ for autism. They learn language for positioning, like ‘mirame,’ which means look at me or ‘intenta otra vez,’ which means try again. The students know what to say but they may not be comfortable using it here. But in Mexico they have to use it and they have to code it with the parents,” she says.
The 10-day trip culminates with a carnival. Local businesses, students, parents and educators involved in The Mexico Project converge to celebrate the successes of the experience. Last year students installed air conditioning at the school-“a big success,” notes Matthews.
Another achievement: “For many of these parents this is the first time their child with disabilities has had a summer camp experience,” Matthews says. “Many of these children have never been anywhere but home during the summer-while their siblings attended arts or sports activities. One mother expressed how thrilled she was about her child’s participation. ‘Her brother and sisters were almost jealous,’ the mother said.”