Shannon Benton, M.S. CCC/SLP
Executive Director of CLASP International
The story began way back in 2007; however, the series of events in 2009 was the catalyst for forming what is now CLASP International. In 2009, I was granted access into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of a Zambian government hospital. I was there taking photos for the sole purpose of educational research. The information I extracted was to be used back in the United States by a team of NICU specialists to assist in the development of a training program for the hospitals of underdeveloped nations. When I walked into the NICU ward, having been given permission by the Deputy Director of the hospital, I prepared myself quickly for the work I was to do there. However, I could not possibly have been prepared for the work it was to do in me. What I witnessed in that place changed the entire course of my life. I had been informed already about what I would witness. I was aware of the statistics. And yet, seeing the faces that made up those statistics affected me on a profound and personal level that data alone was incapable of.
I crossed the room, camera in hand, to observe a child in an all too common state for such places. He was yellow, and each tired breath was heavy. His stomach was imploded, and his ribs visible. I turned to the mother, getting my camera ready, and turned back, only to halt abruptly. He had taken his last labored breath. And the blood that ran from his nose would not let me turn away. I watched rigidly as the doctor walked in, picked up that still-warm body with his bare hands, and having established its lifelessness, set it back down again. He placed a white washcloth over the figure, and turned to walk out of the room. Ninety percent of the babies he would see on a daily bases came to the same fate.
While the struggle and failure of such infants to survive has reached a point of numbness for the doctors who meet with it daily, that day I had not had time to develop such callouses in my own heart. I couldn’t get over how quickly new life could cease. I could not make peace with how casual this reality was in that place. And for many of those babies, I knew that there was opportunity to rescue their lives if only the tools were made available. They were not... but they could be.
In the end, the minute-life of one boy, would change the paths of many for years after his passing. It was his life that began the vision that is now CLASP International; an organization comprised of people who will not reduce children to data, or let distance give way to disinterest. There is action that can be taken. There are lives that can be saved. And with the continued help of those who are willing to catch this vision, the minute-life of one boy will continue to rescue countless lives, for years to come.
The story of how CLASP International began is no secret. In 2007, I attended a summer camp in Lusaka, Zambia through a mission organization aimed at sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with the orphans of Zambia. As a speech-language pathologist and a sibling of a child with a disability, I took note of the limited population of children with disabilities in Lusaka. From my clinical perspective, I began to ask the hard questions: “Where are the children with disabilities? What about those children with cleft palates, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, hearing loss? Where are the children that are similar to the disabled children that I work with everyday? What about the adults with disabilities? Where are they?”
After much research and through hearing answers to my questions that were overwhelming, I honestly felt hopeless. It was noted that most of the children with disabilities in the country are considered a burden. Children born with autism, prematurity, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, craniofacial abnormalities (cleft lips/palates), hearing loss, blindness or any other disability are considered a “curse.” Therefore, they are left in toilets, chained up, caged up, burned for sacrificial reasons, killed or starved to death. Those that are rescued continue to battle against the odds with poor medical support and living conditions. Adults with disabilities who have suffered from strokes, traumatic brain injuries and more are treated in the same manner.
Through many conversations with the Zambian doctors, universities and Ministry of Health in person, through email correspondence and with much prayer, the overwhelming response of the need for speech pathology in Zambia led us to the development of CLASP International. In August 2010, we sent out our first full team of 12 certified speech-language pathologists from America to inserting the initial portion of graduate training for Zambians to work with the disabled population. Our team continued to assess and build from our professional perspectives a program that now provided training for other professionals in the hospitals, clinics and schools to work with the Zambian children and adults with disabilities. We found it almost wrong to keep our training professionals to only speechpathologists. In August 2011, we took a team of 29 professionals ranging from speechpathologists, audiologists, NICU nurses, physical therapist, occupational therapists and special education administrators. Through embarking on this journey with these professionals, we have now been able to establish a formalized Masters level Speechpathology Graduate Program, a Masters level Audiology Graduate Program, a NICU Nursing Fellowship Program, a NICU Therapy Fellowship Program and a Special Education supplementary Program. We have also expanded from Zambia to Kenya, Uganda, the East African Alliance and more countries are on the way. The goal of these programs is to train the trainer and establish formalized self-sustaining programming that allows each professional to train professionals in their country in these fields.
After spending time much time in Africa these past several years, I have learned and grown so much from just loving on those beautiful children and adults. My heart is continually broken over what is often revealed. I think of the many children I work with daily that have so much value even though they have a hearing loss or facial paralysis or autism or cerebral palsy. It saddens me to think that children such as these over there essentially had no chance… until now. There is still so much hope for these voiceless children and adults with disabilities!
Shannon R. Benton, MS CCC/SLP
Executive Director and Founder
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Katie Kauppila, M.S. CCC/SLP
CLASP International Speech-Language Pathologist
The stories, the pictures, the testimonies…my heart was stirred for the people of Africa. In June 2009, I traveled to Zambia for the first time with my friend and fellow speech pathologist, Shannon Benton. She told me about a need she observed during her prior trip to Zambia. She noticed a lack of training available for people to work with and advocate for children with special needs. During our time in Zambia in 2009, we hoped to form a plan of what could be done from the perspective of two speech pathologists. To be completely honest, I was fairly skeptical about the possibility of starting some type of speech pathology program in Zambia. My skepticism arose from the enormity of the unmet basic human needs faced daily by the people living there. Zambia has a population of over 11 million people. 1 Million of these people are children who have been orphaned due to the ravages of AIDS and other poverty-related diseases. The UN says that Zambia has the highest per capita orphan rate in the world. Knowing these statistics, I wondered if speech pathology would even be on the radar.
The “doors” started to open. We were absolutely astounded as we met with physicians, hospital administrators, and professors from the local university. They all verbalized that there has been a “hole” in the services they have been able to provide to children and adults with special needs such as cleft lip/palate, deafness, cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome, hydrocephalus, etc. Their excitement about the possibility of a sustainable speech pathology program in Zambia was contagious. We encountered such drive and determination from our new Zambian friends to help get this program started. It was evident that there would be a speech pathology program started in Zambia that would provide Zambian students the education needed to be the first speech pathologists in the country. The creation of this program is something much bigger than ourselves and an opportunity that we could not ignore.
CLASP International’s goal is to empower through education. However, the training and education the Zambian students will receive is only half of the vision. Our prayer is also to educate a society on the value of life and to provide a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Many of the children with disabilities are hidden or not even given a chance at life. Our hope is to shed light on the value of life and provide education that will bring about a cultural shift towards advocacy and acceptance of those with special needs.
“…for such a time as this” Esther 4:14
Katie Kauppila, MS CCC/SLP