|Jill Samelson's lessons from the heart|
What started with the need to educate their own children will soon grow into a foundation designed to aid special needs children throughout Asia.
Jill and David Samelson, members of Hong Kong’s Jewish community, founded the Children’s Institute of Hong Kong (TCIHK) in 2005. TCIHK is a non-profit school dedicated to providing quality education for students with special needs who currently are not capable of being mainstreamed.
While running an educational institution requires specific knowledge, research, training organisation and vision, Jill leads with the heart. She received unsolicited on-the-job training as she herself is the mother of two children Beth, age11, and Adam, age 8, both of whom are autistic.
Beyond this, Jill Samelson has a global vision that extends to educating Hong Kong and the greater Far East with respect to understanding autism and related disorders.
After a frustrating attempt to find suitable education for her own children, Jill left Hong Kong in 1999 on a quest to make a difference in her children’s lives and the lives of other children in Hong Kong. Finding it hard to leave the home she loved, Jill was determined to relocate to the United States only temporarily, so that she could return to Asia with the resources necessary to make her vision a reality.
“David and I love Hong Kong and together wanted to give other families in Asia the same educational opportunities available in North America and Europe. These services should be available to children all over the world.”
And Jill’s vision is a reality after a four year stint back in the United States, she returned home to Asia and took action. Together, Jill and David were equipped to create TCIHK. The programme started small in accordance with Hong Kong’s strict licensing procedures and was able to admit only seven children in the first year.
The Institute currently has a student body of 14 children and it is the only school in Hong Kong licensed for autism. While autism is the focus, the school does not discriminate and has opened its doors to other children that would benefit from its services. The school also attempts to provide these specialised services to families at a cost on par with the other international school’s tuitions.
While there are other existing programmes in Hong Kong, for special needs children, waiting lists are long and spaces are limited. Similarly, language barriers create further limitations on the programming available to expat children.
Jill is humble and takes no credit for the success of the school, she credits the talent and ability of the Programme Director, Claire Egan. As Jill indicates, we all take our instructions directly from Claire. Claire is a Board Certified Analyst who has a PhD in Pschology and a Masters degree in Applied Behaviour Science and Special Education from Columbia University. A second Programme Director, from the United States, will be joining the school in September. This additional director’s focus will be community liason projects and parent education. In addition to the two programme directors, there are 15 others on staff.
The Children’s Institute uses Applied Verbal Behaviour (AVB) as its method of instruction. AVB, an intensive academic approach, involves individualised instruction, detailed data collection, frequent assessment of progress and data-based decision making. The children are taught socially appropriate skills and gradually encouraged to replace inappropriate behaviour. A one to one student/ instructor ratio is ideal for optimal performance and a positive classroom environment is maintained.
The children work side by side other classmates while mastering their own individually tailored curriculum. The instructors use the research proven tactics of AVB to continuously modify their own methods to best suit each child. As Jill explains, children get the maximum benefit from the programme by working along side their peers. There is the opportunity for outdoor play, turn taking, and games.
Speech therapy and occupational therapy are provided as well as an in home behavioural support programme. Free parent and helper workshops are also conducted. Additionally there are transition and follow-up services for mainstreamed students.
Keeping with its global perspective, the school has already enrolled students from Shanghai, the UK, Australia, Korea, Malaysia and the US whose families have similarly encountered limitations on the availability of suitable educational programs in their host countries. An educator from the Nanjing area, likewise was trained in the school’s methodology so that she could bring skills back to improve education in her community.
The school maintains an open door policy to allow others access to wealth of information that Jill and her team has amassed. A resource room is being developed to allow parents and community members to research information on their own and a forum for a support group is being organised. Both the support group and the resource room will serve as starting points for accessing information with respect to other special needs programmes, speech therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and other related professional. Books, magazines, tapes and DVDs are available for checkout creating a special needs lending library.
Jill’s efforts have extended to reach out to the other international schools in order to teach typically developing children tolerance and to allow for peer modeling programming to benefit both TCIHK’s students and other international students. This shadowing programme is a key component to the Institute’s vision of educating the community.
Through the continued support of both corporate and individual donors, there are plans for expansion. The school has long outgrown its original location, as Jill’s vision moves step by step towards completion. Currently, located in Repulse Bay, they will be moving to Kennedy Town this term. TCIHK has recently incorporated to form what will be a new international school, The
Harbour School. The Harbour School is a registered non-profit. It will allow the children a mainstreaming opportunity.
This new foundation status will also aid fundraising efforts and hopefully allow the programme to expand more rapidly to accommodate the needs of many more children. There is currently a waiting list for admission.
When questioned as to the source of her seemingly endless strength, resourcefulness, and innovation, Jill replies, without hesitation, “the source of my strength is my children, Beth and Adam.”