Shari, Monte and Andrew are sharing with us the extraordinary journey of how they came together to revolutionize special education in Shanghai. A truly inspirational journey of entrepreneurs and changemakers that won’t take no for an answer and pursue their dream to make a difference.
First could you explain to our readers, what does children with “special needs” is referring to?
Monte: The term “special needs” refers to the extra help needed by a child to learn or develop. In the US, approximately 15% of all children in schools receive some special assistance. It covers a very broad range of needs including visual, hearing, cognitive, physical, developmental, emotional – actually too many to list here, each with its own special requirements or accommodations. All it implies is that the children either learn differently or need extra help in their daily activities.
Andrew: When we meet a child, we do our best to learn about what is happening in that specific child’s world and try to identify areas where we can help that child achieve their goals. Some kids, more than others, need some extra, special help to reach certain achievements. These children are very welcome at ELG and we are built to help them.
How long have been in China and how did you first become aware of the lack of support for children with special needs?
Monte: We’ve been in China since 2003.
Shari: I’m a speech-language pathologist with a PhD in speech-language disorders, with her specialties being in autism and learning disabilities. We came to China for Monte’s work and I started consulting in international schools. At the time, I was the only international resource in special education, and I saw a total lack of services in the international schools. I also did volunteer work at a Chinese hospital training doctors on how to diagnose autism but I realized (back then) there weren’t any services for these children. Each experience where a family had to leave China made me incredibly sad but also determined to make a difference.
Andrew: I’ve been in China for 28 years. When you do not have children and most of your friends do not have children, children’s issues are not really on your radar. When I was beginning my family, I met Shari and she is the one who showed me the condition of special education in Shanghai and parts of China.
From this finding, how did you decide to take a step further by creating your own special education center?
Monte: Shari would come home every night with a new story about a child not getting services, always ending her story with, “Somebody should really do something.” After a year or two of hearing this, I thought “Why not us?”. With Shari’s background in education and my organizational background we thought this would make the perfect partnership. That’s how the idea of ELG was started. We quickly realized we didn’t know how to get started in China, so Andrew Hill joined the effort.
Andrew: After I heard Shari’s story, I sat down with Monte and asked what I could do to help. It turned out that Monte and Shari really needed a Chinese literate partner so I decided to join the team filling this need.
Monte: Shari started by working on the development of the programs while Andrew and I focused on the organizational side of getting licenses. Andrew and I went to hundreds of meetings where people either said “impossible” or asked us to pay for guanxi. We refused to accept “impossible” and finally found the right person who helped us get a license because she saw we were trying to do something good.
What type of programs do you create and provide to the children to deal with this lack of support in special education?
Shari: Our programs do so much more now than just special education. We work with parents, consult to schools, offer counseling, and support for community organizations. We have a full-time center for children who cannot get their needs met in international or local schools., as well as an international and multidisciplinary team of 25 specialists, who go out to schools to consult and provide on-campus services. We also support our sister NGO, Xiersen, whose mission is to improve special education in China. Being a very community-minded group of people, we participate in and support groups like Health Executive Group (HEG) (health care management in China), Lifeline Shanghai (the crisis intervention hotline), REACH (a community effort to focus on domestic violence). We also run free trainings for professionals and parents. Outside of ELG, our staff do so many more community-oriented activities, for instance, Andrew was just past president of the Shanghai Rotary Club.
What is the situation of children with special needs in China when they are not taken in charge by a dedicated organisation like ELG? What is the general mindset related to mental heath diseases?
Monte: The situation in China is quickly improving with all kinds of new centers and government efforts. There is a long way to go, like everywhere in the world, but there are many more services that exist, many more options for families, and we hope we can help support and train those centers too. We want ELG to be a model program for best practices where others can learn from us and Xiersen has a goal to train paraprofessionals who can support families, schools and programs because there is a huge shortage of trained workers, especially in autism.
Andrew: China has had so many things to modernize and change over the last 30 years. The government has done amazing things, but there is still a lot of work to do. When we started ELG in 2005, very few people in the government had heard of special education. I am happy to say that this has changed and there is a very positive response from the government to improve the condition of special education in China.
In more than 10 years of existence what has been the key achievements that led you where you are now?
Shari: The first thing that came to mind is people, people, people. We have a great team of specialists from around the world and a great team of support staff. Everything we do is aimed at improving outcomes for children and families. We aren’t perfect but we think we provide a great atmosphere for our staff to grow, contribute, and feel part of our overall goals. Our staff comes from over 15 counties, which makes for an exciting work environment and we work in a multi-disciplinary methodology, which we are finding out is very unique around the world. All our support staff from professionals, office staff, ayis, and drivers all play important roles in supporting children.
10 years is a lot of experience in the quite young sector of social entrepreneurship in China. If you take a look back, what are your insights on the evolution of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem in Shanghai since you’ve started?
Monte: When we started, I don’t remember anyone else talking about social entrepreneurship but I had been immersed in this idea at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where I did my MBA. Nowadays, everyone wants to be a social entrepreneur, it seems! Companies have embraced corporate social responsibility and companies are going more green, we hope. I think there is much more awareness of these ideas and that we can make changes through both non-profit and profit businesses.
As a social enterprise, how do you use your business model to maximize your positive impact?
Monte: One of the biggest challenges is staying focused. There are so many things we could be doing in Shanghai and around China, but it is impossible to have all the resources to help everyone. We have to be sustainable so we can hire people and so we can grow, otherwise we are nothing. So we look for opportunities to help, for example, we help support Xiersen, a Chinese NGO, to provide training services; we offer free community trainings and professional development days; and many of our staff volunteer at local agencies. We invite other agencies to learn what we are doing so they can apply it in their own settings. For example, one year we had four orphanage workers spend the summer learning what we do, and then they were able to apply the concepts for their children.
Andrew: We wanted to change the general mentality of how China was going to develop its special education field by bringing the overseas talent to the market. Too often people left China looking for services that did not exist here or would fly experts in for a few days, which never really has the impact people are looking for. With our ELG specialists seeing over thousands of clients over the years, we know that this is creating a solid foundation for China’s future.
What are the next steps you would like to achieve in terms of impact? Do you have a “dream” project to go even further in bringing positive value for the children that need your services?
Monte: That is a great question, because we are always balancing the day-to-day challenges with our dreams. I would say Shari is our main dreamer who wants to open innovative pre-school programs, work in the rural areas of China, conduct innovative research, train parents, etc. She has a million dreams, while I want to keep the program steady and growing year over year. We balance each other out nicely!
Xiersen is our dream project. Helping support an NGO was one of our goals from the beginning but it was nearly impossible (there’s that word again). Through contacts Andrew had developed at Rotary he was able to stay aware of the changing regulations, and when the time opened up, he worked with a group of Chinese professionals, business people, and supporters to get Xiersen registered. We hope it can make a big impact in resources for special education in China.
What makes you optimistic and keeps you going every day?
Shari: Monte and I both think we have the greatest jobs in the world. I get to work with children on a day-to-day basis and work with our wonderful staff, and I get to see first-hand all the progress the children make.
Monte: I don’t work closely with the children but I am surrounded by them every day. Nothing makes me feel better or more optimistic than when we receive a thank you note from a parent telling us how much we have helped their child and family. How many MBAs do you know that have literally received a note from a parent saying, “You saved our lives.” That will keep me going for years!
Andrew: When I see our experts with the children or parents, I know that there is change happening in front of me and it gives me strength and hope for reaching all the families that need our support.
What project or who has been the greatest source of inspiration in your life?
Monte: I don’t think there is one project or person that I can point to. Hearing stories of other social innovators, meeting families that struggle every day, having access to stories from around the world all provide inspiration. There are millions of people who everyday impact their world in small and big ways. I take my inspiration from hearing the stories of everyday people, not the “famous” people.
Thank you Monte, Shari and Andrew.
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