To visit the Solidaridad con Panamá (Solidarity with Panama) School, where 180 children and young people with physical and intellectual disabilities or cerebrovascular diseases study, is a moment to rid oneself of sorrows, and be inspired by the determination to overcome any difficulties that lie ahead.
Students at the school are motivated by the staff who work closely with them every day, some 110 workers in total, including 64 teachers, and over 40 assistants, physical therapists and other professionals. Some of whom have also provided educational services in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and other countries.
The school, located in the Fontanar neighborhood in the municipality of Boyeros, Havana, is a site without architectural barriers to mobility, characterized for its cleanliness, order, discipline, lighting in every corner and use of color to invoke peace and happiness.
The Solidaridad con Panamá School was inaugurated by the leader of the Cuban Revolution Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro Ruz on 31 December 1989, in the context of U.S. military aggression against Panama. The school teaches at three levels: primary, secondary, and for children with intellectual and developmental difficulties. The school also participates in the “Educate Your Child” program, which offers tools for parents with disabled children.
Walking around the site, one comes across children with no hands eating with their feet; a child who has difficulty walking pushing the wheelchair of another; or another holding a pencil between his teeth to write during class. They all play the normal games for their age, particularly enjoy art classes and get up to mischief now and again. There is no sense here of pity for these children, solely because they have certain limitations.
What stands out is the joy expressed on each of their faces. They all are eager to be photographed and open to talk to anyone. Teachers, workers and students clearly recall key moments in the 25 year history of the school.
The phone rings, a call from Holguín for Miguel Cañete Ladron de Guevara, a former student who wishes to say hello. She tells him, “I’m proud, with my craftwork I earn my livelihood.”
Miguel recalls the long hours he has devoted to explaining the combination of colors, the assembly of figures, design and different techniques, during his crafts classes, where he has taught students how to make necklaces, bracelets, earrings, ornaments, artificial flowers, and other objects to bring joy to others.
Students develop skills in handling scissors, paper crafts, needlework, selecting color schemes, interpreting designs and using their creativity to craft aesthetic pieces for personal or collective use.
Miguel underwent several facial surgeries in his teens, and enrolled at the Solidaridad con Panamá School. Upon graduating from high school, he continued his bachelor's degree studies through an evening course.
A teacher of his, Martha Balbina, invited him to return to the school as a teacher and without hesitation, he began his teaching career. He began by enrolling in a mid-level technician course before pursuing a degree. Today he has a Masters degree in Education.
Once the telephone call is over, he returns to the classroom where he is working with two students: Denis Linares de Cárdenas aged 15, and Yoel Reyes Destrades, aged 17, both of whom have severe cognitive disabilities. He patiently encourages them to be creative as they craft a vase for artificial flowers.
THE HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER
Silence reigns in the ninth grade classroom, with full concentration on the words of teacher Lourdes Morejón de Vega and the subject of algebra. A group of ten adolescents in their uniforms, white blouses or shirts and yellow skirts or pants, each with their José Martí Pioneer Organization emblem, listens intently.
The teacher asks them to open their textbooks and calls on one of the students to read aloud. The boy does so, but with difficulty. The teacher indicates a paused breathing technique and asks him to try reading the paragraph again.
She continues with another student, making reference to the previous excerpt. Another is then asked to go to the blackboard and solve a problem. She approaches with some difficulty but reaches an answer, which she is then asked to explain step by step. The teacher’s words of praise for all serve as motivation.
As the class concludes, Lourdes notes that in her 25 year professional career, she has learned to work with the personal characteristics of each student. Although she teaches students who are not intellectually disabled, she must work to correct their pronunciation, ensure correct posture, encourage them to overcome stage fright and build skills in the interpretation of texts, reading aloud and solving algebra problems.
She herself suffers from retinitis pigmentosa and her students assist her to ensure she doesn’t bump into objects in the classroom. They provide her with happiness and affection. She sums it up in one sentence: “They give much more love than they receive.”
Luisito, an eight-year-old with cerebral palsy caused by prenatal stroke, enters the physical therapy area, where he is met by Teresa Mirta Durán Noya, a founding teacher of the Solidaridad con Panamá School.
Here, activities are held for children with severe disabilities, allowing them to develop motor skills in order to grip objects using their upper limbs, with the help of educational toys, small and medium-sized balls, puzzles and games.
She helps create personal care habits like buttoning, lacing shoes, eating, moving from a rocking chair to a bed or a static seat, combing hair, brushing teeth, making a bed, which pose challenges for children with mobility impairments.
During her 27 years of teaching in this field, she has carefully studied the clinical histories of each of her students, as well as their psycho-educational assessments. At first, she explores their physical aptitude in order to initiate custom exercises until they discover they can undertake tasks that once seemed impossible.
Luis Antonio Torres Acosta (Luisito) is only able to communicate by nodding or shaking his head and expressing joy or pain with his eyes, though his intellect is in accordance with his age.
His eyes light up on hearing the word “football” and when asked who the best footballer is the world is, he signs to indicate Cristiano Ronaldo of Spain’s Real Madrid. He dreams of owning a football or T-shirt signed by the player, or even a postcard or the mention of his name during a match.
Teresa speaks to him with affection, placing a cloth ball in his hands to practice his grip. She then encourages him to move around. Luisito responds eagerly, nodding his head as she asks, “Are you going to play football?”
A COLLECTIVE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Assistant Principal Anayeli Pérez Luis knows the names of 180 students at the school; she is aware of each child’s condition, their psycho-social environment, individual characteristics, and family background. She schedules educational activities and demands rigorous compliance with timetables.
Anayeli has many anecdotes to share, including the first time the children visited the cinema or a theatre, or a day at the beach when a student who couldn’t walk happily cried “Look, teacher, my feet float.”
She’s had her fair share of scares, be it due to childhood pranks, fights over toys, or the moods of adolescents. She has also given first aid when faced with a seizure.
She is currently very excited, as on April 21, a collective birthday celebration will be held for all students turning 15 this year. As is tradition in Cuban families, a party is being organized at which all the girls will wear long dresses, adorned with lace and sequins, while the boys will wear suits.
The evening will begin with a waltz, parents congratulating their children, the cutting of a huge cake, a toast, and then dancing to a variety of music, accompanied by a photographer to capture the moment.
Parents, relatives, friends and neighbors not only act as guests, but also help to make the food, decorate the venue, coordinate the music, and take care of hair and makeup.
Meanwhile, a recurring theme is heard in conversations in the hallways and common areas of the school: the choreography for dances.
The José Martí Pioneer Organization is also present at the Solidaridad con Panamá School. The younger children join the “Moncadistas” and wear a blue neckerchief, while the 4th to 6th grade students are José Martí pioneers, wearing red neckerchiefs. On beginning their high school education, they wear an emblem on the pocket or sleeve of their uniform.
The 18 pioneer “detachments” at the school hold monthly meetings to discuss their studies, the quality of classes, school discipline, the correct use of uniforms, recreational activities, and recognition for the top performing pioneers.
Every September, at the beginning of the school year, they elect their representatives, first in their respective detachments, and then by a show of hands they choose those who will be leading the collective, assuming the positions of Group Leader, and those responsible for awards, study, activities, exploration and camping.
Kenny Matos Gómez, aged 13, with mobility impairments, is admired by his peers for having won the nationwide reading contest, “He or she who reads more, knows more,” and participating in other subject competitions, singing and playing the piano.
He says he is not sure why he has been elected Group Leader for the past two years, but one thing he is sure of, is that he is going to be a journalist.