Social work student supports children with disabilities in Ukraine

Story by Christian Knoll

This summer, Colorado State University graduate student Sarah Gumson spent a two weeks in Kyiv, Ukraine, with the goal of assisting those with disabilities. Gumson is currently enrolled in a part-time distance program at CSU working on her Master of Social Work.

Before coming to CSU, Gumson attended SUNY Plattsburgh, where she earned her bachelor’s in sociology of criminal justice. Gumson initially wanted to work with troubled youth, but ended up working in a residential setting serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), and she pursued the same type of work when she moved to Colorado.

“Serving people with I/DD is the most rewarding experience, and the people you form relationships with are incredibly genuine human beings,” Gumson said reflecting on her work. “This eventually sparked my interest in pursuing my M.S.W. to learn more about what I can do to improve the quality of life for people with I/DD in Colorado and around the world.”

Sarah Gumson

Volunteer trip to Ukraine

Gumson, along with four of her colleagues: Christopher DiRosa, Christopher Baumgart, Whitney Granger and Wes Granger, planned a volunteer trip to Kyiv, Ukraine. All five work for Imagine!, a Colorado-based agency  that “provides services designed to incorporate people with developmental, cognitive and physical challenges into the fabric of their communities.”

“We put together this volunteer trip as something completely separate, but used a lot of what we’ve learned and experienced from working for Imagine!,” Gumson said. “Christopher DiRosa and I created a nonprofit called ‘Inclusion Collective,’ which became the backbone of the project. The Rotary Club of Longmont and in Kyiv played a huge role in supporting us by coordinating accommodations, transportation, translation services and hospitality while we were in Ukraine.”

Gumson and her team eventually partnered with the local non-governmental organization called “Rodyna,” which directly translates to “family” in Ukrainian. Rodyna is a school for children with disabilities run by families of children with disabilities.

“There are no special education or day care resources for children with disabilities in Ukraine, so Rodyna is a very new and innovative organization,” Gumson said.

Supporting children with disabilities

“At Rodyna, we worked with individual children, staff and families to help answer questions and start to build plans to better support their needs,” Gumson said. “We helped guide the staff members in behavioral support strategies such as the incredible impact of positive reinforcement, and tested several forms of communication techniques.”

“The work that the staff are already doing there is incredible and their receptiveness to our suggestions was so inspiring,” said Gumson. “I could tell that the staff are genuinely in it with their hearts and want to learn how to better support the children. The parents we worked with really wanted to share about their children and to learn how to help them grow regardless of the fact that they’re differently-abled. Just being around so many people who are so passionate, willing to share and eager to learn made this experience truly touch my heart.”

According to Gumson, the Ukrainian government does not support people with disabilities or their families, although she says there are many wonderful organizations in existence that provide support.

“Many resources we have in the U.S. such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, applied behavioral analysis, speech language pathology, special education and doctors trained to know how to treat people with disabilities are not available in Ukraine,” Gumson said. “One woman told us that she taught herself applied behavioral analysis with internet resources to better support her child since it does not currently exist in Ukraine.”

Two-day training conference

Gumson’s trip also entailed hosting a two-day training conference for families of children with disabilities as well as service providers, and meeting with Ukrainian policy makers and other nongovernmental organizations to discuss a plan to begin de-institutionalization. Gumson says the Commissioner of the President of Ukraine for Children’s Rights, Mykola Mykolayovych Kuleba, is pushing for small-group residential settings in communities and better support for families with resources to be able to care for their own children.

“Sometimes I feel as if our world is crumbling, but this trip made me realize the impact that people can have on change,” Gumson said. “One person can make a difference, and together we can make an even bigger impact. Being around so many passionate individuals who are so focused on helping others helped me revamp my faith.”

The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

CSU University Communications Staff