On her second day volunteering at a Ghanaian school and home for children, Jenna Rodriguez taught a class of young students. Rodriguez had the students work on letter writing and faced an unexpected occurrence. One of the students was immobile and could not orally communicate. Rodriguez said she did not know how the student would participate in the lesson. She was surprised when a fellow student stuck a pencil with a rag in the mouth of the immobile student. The immobile student then began writing along with the class using the pencil in her mouth.
While studying abroad this past summer in Ghana, Rodriguez experienced the country’s beauty and culture, but she also took one step further. Rodriguez went out of her way to follow one of her passions: helping children with disabilities.
As a part of the research program in Ghana, Rodriguez chose to look deeper into inclusive education in Ghana and her chosen career path in special education. To help students with disabilities and get first hand experience, Rodriguez took steps to find a volunteer opportunity before even leaving the country. Rodriguez connected with the non-profit organization Echoing Hills Village and started volunteering after her third week in Ghana.
This organization was created to help people with disabilities and the homeless. They provide individuals with a home and educational opportunities. Here, Rodriguez taught and cared for the abandoned children brought to the organization.
Rodriguez said she was touched by the ability of the students to communicate and function in Ghana even without the technology available in the United States.
She said could see this difference in technology and, in some cases, the difference of treatment for individuals with disabilities. Rodriguez said although the United States is not perfect when it comes to the treatment of individuals with disabilities, it is more inclusive than Ghana in education and in societal acceptance. She said, in Ghana, individuals with disabilities struggle to receive an education because it is too expensive or because they are not accepted by the communities.
Ghana is working to integrate the education of these individuals into the mainstream education system, so the individuals receive the education and accommodations they need, Rodriguez said.
At Echoing Hills, Rodriguez lived out her dream of empowering children with disabilities to find their independence and care for themselves. Rodriguez said she has always wanted to be a special education teacher. She said she really enjoys helping the students. She felt this enjoyment as she worked with the children in Ghana.
“My heart is completely sold,” Rodriguez said. “My heart is happy.”
Jenna’s older sister, Joan Rodriguez, said Jenna showed her dedication to teaching from a young age. She always looked up to her teachers and would set up a classroom in the basement during the summers when they were children.
“At the end of the year when we would bring home our old school work, she would set up another little school in our basement,” Joan Rodriguez said. “She would be the teacher, and we would always play classroom.”
Joan Rodriguez said Jenna Rodriguez would later go out of her way to help students who were falling behind. In high school, Jenna Rodriguez started to gravitate towards helping students with disabilities. She would sometimes run across the hall to greet the students or give them hugs or high-fives, Joan Rodriguez said.
In her junior year of high school, Jenna Rodriguez had the opportunity to work with these students. She had a mentoring position in a life skills classroom as a part of her class schedule. In this position, Jenna Rodriguez observed Melissa Wessel, a life skills teacher at Freeburg Community School. In the classroom, they helped students with disabilities develop skills, like shopping for groceries and living successfully on their own.
“Jenna has always put forth 100 percent when working with the special education population; she wasn’t afraid to ask questions and gain as much knowledge and info when she mentored,” Wessel said. “My students talk about her two years later. She definitely made an impact on their lives, and I know she will continue to do so on many others.”
After her experience in the life skills classroom, Jenna Rodriguez became even more confident in her desire to become a special education teacher. She said she wants people to realize a person’s disability does not define them and people should be open-minded and patient in their treatment of people with disabilities.
“You should treat them like a normal person because that’s what they want,” Jenna Rodriguez said. “Have an open mind and be nice. That’s all you have to do.”
Wessel said she knows Jenna Rodriguez will be successful as a special education teacher and will impact many lives in her work. Joan Rodriguez is confident in her sister’s abilities to be a special education teacher and said parents can feel secure if Jenna Rodriguez is their child’s teacher.
“Any parent can feel safe leaving their child with Jenna,” Joan Rodriguez said. “She will go the extra mile and above and beyond to make sure they are taken care of.”