Helping Hands

An unusual partnership between the College of Education, local students with special needs, and an organization fighting poverty  in Peru yields benefits for all three groups.

by Paula Price Tanner

In the spring of 2016, Elizabeth Gish, a 20-year-old UMHB education major from Waxahachie, helped Jared Middlebrook, a 14-year-old student from Belton, learn how to prepare textiles and notecards for sale. The effects of their work were far-reaching.  Elizabeth learned how to break a task down into a series of steps suited to the particular skills of a young man who learns differently.  Jared learned how to follow a pictorial list of instructions to complete a task, start to finish, all by himself.  And together, Elizabeth and Jared helped a group of women in Peru provide for their families and improve conditions in their community.

These benefits were achieved thanks to collaborative efforts between the UMHB College of Education, Belton Independent School District and the Bell County Cooperative, and a non-profit organization called Threads of Hope, which works to enable Peruvian artisans living in extreme poverty to earn a fair, reliable income through the sale of the textiles they produce. The collaboration not only met the needs of a group of teachers-in-training and their special needs clients, but it also provided a way for all of them to help break the cycle of poverty for people living in some of the poorest conditions on the planet.

Challenging work

The collaboration was the brainchild of Assistant Professor Kris Ward, who teaches courses for UMHB students who want to be certified to teach special education in grades K through 12. Dr. Ward established the Special Needs Lab in 2014 to help her students learn about the challenges of special education and how to respond to them before they begin student teaching in the local schools.

“Students who are learning to be special educators have a lot to learn to be ready to take that classroom,” Ward explains.  “If you are a special educator in a life skills class-room, it means you are teaching the most severely disabled students, and the students stay in the classroom with you most of the day.  You have to teach academic content to students who have multiple disabilities and different levels of functioning. Some are verbal, some are nonverbal; some can walk, some cannot; some require nursing care, some do not, and there’s everything in between.”

“The other end of the spectrum is the inclusion teacher who works with children with mild to moderate learning disabilities. Instead of being put into a special class, these children are often ‘included’ in the general education class-rooms; their special ed teachers may consult with them one-on-one or go into the general education classrooms and work with them there.”

“So a person who wants to be a special ed teacher has an enormous amount of learning that has to happen.  We needed a way for these students to get hands-on interaction with kids with various disabilities and various levels of functioning. Before they start their student teaching, we want them to have prepared lessons, implemented those lessons, and changed the lessons because they didn’t work.  They need to experience behaviors that some would consider shocking.  They need to know how to deescalate bad situations and how to motivate students.  They need to learn what works and what doesn’t work.”

The Special Needs Lab provides a way for her students to connect what Dr. Ward teaches in class with what they experience working with a small group of special needs students whose learning disabilities are varied in type and severity.  “By the time one of our students gets to student teaching, he or she has had 200-plus hours in the lab of direct contact with students with disabilities, and another 100-plus hours of direct contact with students without disabilities from their general education classes,” Ward said.

It is a pivotal experience for the young teachers-in-training, said Ward. “The students love the lab.  It is hard. It’s exhausting.  But they say that they wouldn’t be ready to teach without it.  When they are asked to evaluate the experience, every single time they talk about how the lab has changed the way they have been prepared for being a teacher.”

A priceless resource

This year 42 special needs children and teens came to the Special Needs Lab each week to work with UMHB students. They were divided into two groups—one for children age 3 through 8th grade, and one for high school students. Some had been referred to the lab by a teacher or physician; other families heard about the program from other parents or friends.

“Parents of children with special needs look for programs where their children can get additional assistance through physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, or other forms of assistance,” said Ward.  “By coming to our lab, they are getting extra academic and social instruction for their students.  They know it is a safe place and that the instruction is research based, so everything that we do with their children is something they would do in school.

“We charge $50 per year to come to the lab, to cover the cost of toys that break or edibles we use to reinforce positive behavior.  We work with the Children’s Special Needs Network, so parents can take the receipt for their fees to the local Children’s Special Needs Network office; the network will refund the $50 to them, making the service essentially free,” she said.

The service is a boon for the local school districts, too.  School districts are required to provide education services for children and young adults with special needs from age 3 through age 21.  Bigger school districts, such as Belton ISD, have enough special needs students to justify a full-blown program for them.  Smaller school districts may only have one or two students and may not have the resources to address every sort of disability; in Central Texas, the schools in Holland, Academy, Rogers, Troy, and Salado have combined their services under the name of the Bell County Cooperative for Exceptional Children, sharing teachers and facilities for special needs students from all of their districts.  Both Belton ISD and the Bell County Coop bring students each week to the UMHB lab; their students enjoy the change of pace, and it gives the teachers-in-training the opportunity to work with clients who have a broader range of ability levels.

An added benefit for the older students is that it gives them a chance to interact with people who are close to their own age.  “Being with the college students gives our high school students a chance to ‘hang out’ with people their own age,” said Nancy Riley, director of the Bell County Cooperative. “The student teachers are so caring and faith filled; they offer our students peer relationships, which expand our students’ social skills and boost their self-esteem.”

Coming to the UMHB campus for class is exciting for the high school students, and they are proud to be working in the special Needs Lab.  Belton teacher Felicia Youngblood recalls taking her class to the lab for the first time:  “At the end of the afternoon, one of my students told me with a big smile, ‘We get to go to high school every day, but today I got to go to college!’”

Helping others

Though special ed students are no longer required to attend high school after they reach the age of 18, the law states that school districts must offer them extended training in life skills and job skills, until the students “age out” of the program at 22.  “Sometimes students with disabilities are placed in jobs that are very simple and may not be in an area of interest for the young adult,” Ward said. “But many students have the capacity to carry out more complex jobs. We try to expose our students to several tasks covering a wide genre of working opportunities.”

Ward knew that, in order to work in a more complex job, these higher functioning students needed to be able to follow instructions.  As she pondered the best way to teach this skill, she found inspiration in an unexpected place: a nonprofit organization devoted to helping artisans in Peru earn an income through the sales of their handiwork.

Called Threads of Hope, the organization had become part of the campus community in 2014, when UMHB invited the group to set up their order fulfillment center in an empty area of the university’s J.W. Williams Service Center.  Threads of Hope got its start as a charitable Christian organization in 1999, when Dr. Kim Nimon, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, joined forces with Jean Samaniego, a Christian volunteer who organized sewing groups for impoverished women in the shantytowns of Lima, Peru. Today the organization works through a network of volunteers throughout the U.S. and abroad to sell beautiful, hand-embroidered textiles produced by women in Lima and multiple villages and communities in South Central Peru.  Beyond the routine purchase of textiles throughout the year, proceeds from textile sales are returned to the artisans through the Threads of Hope Grant Fund to break the cycle of poverty in the areas of Education, Healthcare, Housing, and Small Business or Community Development.One rationale for establishing the Threads of Hope order center on campus was that it could offer UMHB students service opportunities with a Christian organization working to alleviate poverty.  As Ward became better acquainted with the group’s activities, she saw a way for her lab students to be involved in meaningful work as their student teachers helped them learn how to follow instructions.

When the products from the Peruvian artisans arrived in the U.S., they came without any tags or prices affixed to them.  Some products, such as note cards featuring photos of the artisans’ colorful wall hangings, needed to be counted out and placed in cellophane packets so they could be sold. Ward realized that high school students participating in the Special Needs Lab could complete these simple but essential steps, so that others at Threads of Hope could spend their time gather-ing and packing orders for shipment.

To get started, she asked her education students to divide up the tasks; each student was asked to break down a task into small enough steps that a particular special needs client could follow the steps and complete the task without assis-tance.  The student teachers were asked to create a visual
“schedule” of the steps so their students could look at each picture in order and understand how to complete the task.

The student teachers then began working individually with the special needs students, teaching them how to follow the visual schedules for the tasks they were assigned.  Sometimes the steps had to be modified as the teachers saw where their pupils were having trouble carrying out one of the steps.  The student teachers worked together with Ward, analyzing how to make the instructions better.  For example, in one instance a young man was working to cut a sheet of tags apart with a paper cutter.  He could do the task well, but it took a long time.  His student teacher realized that he was turning the sheet back and forth, cutting one side and then another on each tag.  When she changed the instructions, telling him to make all the cuts in one direction and then go back and cut them all in the other direction, his productivity was greatly improved.

“Being able to do an assignment independently is an important step for special needs students who want to get a job after they graduate,” said Ward.  “If we can teach them how to follow instructions here in the lab, then they will be able to follow instructions when they are asked to do some-thing new in the workplace.  And in the process, they are gaining a sense of self-confidence in what they can do.”

As they worked in the lab once a week, the students and their teachers talked about the people who had made the embroidered pieces and how preparing the embroideries for sale would help the artisans feed their families, send their children to school, and build safe houses to live in. At the end of the school year, the students and student teachers held a celebration, inviting the students’ families and representatives from Threads of Hope to attend.

At the end of the party, Threads of Hope Project Director Cinde Rawn thanked the students for their efforts. “I have never heard of this kind of collaboration between a university and a nonprofit,” she said.  “You have contributed to our work in such a substantial way, moving us to a more efficient level of service to the women in Peru. Students, you have helped people who are in great need.  Thank you for making their lives better.”

For information about enrolling a student in the services of the Special Needs Lab, email Dr. Kris Ward at   To learn more about the work of Threads of Hope, go to the organization’s website at 

Click here to read a pdf version of this story: HelpingHands2016