Worldmaker Reflection: Lessons from the Students & Staff at Khulani Special School

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This piece was co-written by guest authors Dr. Antigo Martin Delaney, Dr. Amanda Nickerson, Dr. Laurie Klose and Dr. Melissa Reeves (Laurie & Melissa are both past presidents of the National Association of School Psychologists). All four individuals traveled with Worldmaker to Zimbabwe and South Africa to continue work with the Africa Foundation and Consolidated Africa Services-Voluntary Private Organization.

There really are no words to express our time at the Khulani Special School in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, but we’ll attempt to share our moving experience in the following blog.

A Warm Welcome from the Khulani Staff

Khulani has 300+ learners with varying degrees of special needs, from significant learning disabilities to severe Autism. The school is far from many of the students’ homes and many families struggle to meet the needs of their children, so over 200 of the students are boarding students. The campus featured well-maintained playgrounds, buildings and common areas past the gated entrance. We were curious why gated entry was necessary and later learned that local cattle graze freely along the roadway! We were greeted warmly by administrators whose pride in and dedication to the school and the learners was evident in every word and gesture.

Human Connection is the Key

While Khulani Special School is a place of tremendous need, it is first and foremost a place of tremendous pride and respect.

We were honored to visit the classes where learners developed skills to facilitate community integration after graduation. We were immensely grateful for the school staff who spent time in conversation with us sharing their needs and challenges. 

The Khulani Special School is a true testament to the human spirit and dedication of teachers. To say there is minimal amenities and resources is a woefully inadequate understatement. The school has no consistent running water, no special service providers (e.g., school psychologists, counselors, speech-language therapists, occupational or physical therapists), very few curriculum materials, minimal access to technology and no access to the internet (not even for staff). What they are not short on is love and dedication to their learners. The teachers incorporate movement, song, hands-on learning and use of their human and emotional connections with learners to facilitate skill acquisition and adaptive behavior.

Learning from Experience; Building Resilience through Relationships

The Khulani staff said they saw us as the “experts”, however, we learned far more from them about how to truly connect with learners.

These men and women saw the dignity and possibility in every child – no matter the level of need that the child demonstrated. We never saw a child receive correction, only redirection. The staff didn’t have elaborate charts or behavior plans. They simply and profoundly met the learner where they were, and the staff wisely adjusted the environment to allow the student to engage. 

The adversities the staff and children face, both in their personal and school settings, are beyond anything we have experienced in our educational careers, but their resilience is unmatched. ALL students are learning, and, more importantly, they know they are loved, respected and cared for. The learners were engaged in all aspects of the school, whether it was playing in the therapy room, eagerly answering questions for a science lesson, working on sewing, welding, or other arts, or giving us names in sign language. Their thriving was palpable.

Acknolwedging Similar Struggles & Addressing Vast Differences in Education

Mrs. Toksile Nxumalo, the principal of the school since 2010, shared that many of the children had been locked in a room in their homes prior to attending school, with some parents not knowing if their children could speak. Instead of blaming parents, the staff show a keen understanding of the struggles that parents face in a culture that stigmatizes disabilities. 

While we have different challenges in America, there are overlapping struggles: finding enough qualified staff, having enough resources, a lack of professional development opportunities, the stigma attached to having a disability, bullying, worries about what will happen to their learners after graduation when there are very few family resources, and little employment and community integration opportunities. Khulani’s educational leaders and staff are a model of persistence, dedication, and creativity. They ensure learning takes place and that the basic physical and psychological needs of the students are met, even under the greatest of adversities.

What's Needed Next: Internet Access & Reliable Water

As we look forward to what could be most helpful to this school, two needs that we often take for granted in America rise to the top: safe running water and access to the internet.  While the school has much of the infrastructure to store water (thanks to previous donations), there are no funds to ensure the cisterns remain supplied.

Another critical, but game-changing need, is access to the internet. While the community has basic, but very limited access to the internet, it is not accessible at the school. Access to the internet could make a huge difference for this school. Consultation and training from experts all over the world could be accessed, in addition to many free educator resources regarding instructional and behavioral management techniques and social-emotional curriculums to build life skills and address bullying behaviors. 

The principal noted how the students have benefitted immensely from assistive communication devices, and the staff at Khulani share this knowledge with other schools in the district that have even fewer resources.

At the Heart of Teaching

This experience was a humbling reminder of the importance of relationships, leadership, vision, resiliency and persistence. It does not take expensive materials to be a good educator; what it takes is heart, dedication and working with a team who shares those same common values. Through the work and support of Worldmaker International and the Africa Foundation, we are determined to see Khulani Special School receive the much-needed resources to help their students and staff continue to THRIVE!

Prior to our trip, the Africa Foundation asked us to focus on providing sports equipment for youth, and thanks to your generous donations we were able to provide nearly R10,000 for the Africa Foundation to purchase the requested equipment. 

Going forward, we are allocating all funds raised for our South Africa work to computers and reliable internet so we can continue to resource the people on the ground with resilience tools, mental health support and THRIVE training. If you would like to support us in this work donate here and select the South Africa campaign. 

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