I used to dread all of the “The Best of the Year Lists” but now I look forward to them – perhaps because they are so concise.

I thought that I would pass along my personal “Best of 2012 in Autism.” list. These are the 6 ideas, people, initiatives and organizations that most inspired me this year.  Please note that they will be posted one at a time.  This is the 5th in the series.

#5 Special Education Post and Out-Post: From Watertown, MA to Roatan, Honduras

At the age of 17, Maria Wood discovered that her learning differences made her a natural in special education. This allowed her to have a unique perspective on student’s challenges and she began by helping younger children who were struggling with their homework.  While living in Miami, she built a small tutoring practice before her training was complete in ABA.  Her current post is with The Connections Program in the Watertown Middle School, Watertown, MA.  I observed her at work in a special classroom for students on the autism spectrum.

But the bigger story is her work in Roatan, Honduras.  While visiting her father there, she identified a need and is finding ways to address it.

She has founded ProjectSHINE: a not-for-profit dedicated to training teachers on the island. Special education is new to both teachers and parents and they are highly receptive to the program.

Maria started with a survey and needs assessment in 2011.  This allowed her to understand the cultural differences and to test and refine the program using a small sample group of teachers. The goal was to tailor her approach for the island.  Most people on Roatan are bilingual so the work was developed initially in English and is now being translated into Spanish. This February 2013, she will be conducting the third series of professional development courses.  It is a systematic program beginning with grades K-4.  One major challenge is that currently there are no IEP’s on island. Consequently,   a student’s progress and areas of concern do not make it to the next year’s teacher.

The initial focus of ProjectSHINE is to raise awareness about and tolerance for individuals with learning differences in the community, providing support to their families and training teachers in the strategies that help students learn.  The teachers on the island are dedicated and enthusiastic. An existing local nonprofit provides coordination between Maria’s visits and maintains a constant presence with the schools.  A private sponsor is currently collaborating to set up a teacher resource center to serve as a library for all of the teachers on the island.  Initially Maria was funding all of the start-up costs but now she is beginning to start fundraising and to look for more sponsors.

ProjectSHINE’s philosophy is that every child deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Maria takes it a step further than “thinking outside the box.” She feels there is no box!

I am inspired!

Nancy Harrod

See ProjectSHINE.RTB on Facebook or contact Maria at projectshine.rtb@gmail.com for more information or how you can help.