When the AID FOR AIDS Panama team went looking for outside help to provide higher-level teaching assistance to youngsters in its Children’s Program, they requested quotes from several local companies.
One of those firms was ILVEM (a Spanish-language acronym for the Institute of Speed Reading and Memory), which offers learning improvement programs in 24 countries on three continents. Founded in Argentina in the late 1960’s, ILVEM today is one of the most respected firms in its field.
When the request for a price quote reached Jorge Gonzalez, the company’s proprietor in Panama, he wasted no time in responding. “We will not give a quotation to AID FOR AIDS,” replied Gonzalez. “We will provide you with our services for free, which is the least we can do after all you do for these children.”
And, with that, ILVEM and the Panama Children’s Program, which serves 300 youngsters (3 to 15 years of age) living with HIV, embarked on a long-term partnership to improve the children’s reading and writing skills and enhance their full learning potential.
Under the cooperation agreement between the parties signed in the spring of 2010, two ILVEM teachers were assigned to the Children and Teens Center located at Panama Children’s Hospital. The teachers come every Monday during the school season and put the students through a routine of practical and creative techniques aimed at improving their comprehension, memorization, association and summarizing skills.
The students were divided into two groups according to their skill levels. Those teens and pre-teens who could read and write fluently were placed in the Study Techniques group with Professor Domingo, and those children with limited or no reading and writing skills were put into the Reading and Writing Skills group with Professor Angela.
“The children and teens spent Monday afternoons tracing letters, composing sentences, reading stories and solving memory challenges,” explains Rita Banus, Psychologist for AFA Panama’s Children and Teens Center “The teaching made excellent use of computer programs, as well as these written and mental exercises.”
Despite the fact that current Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy lowers the probability of cognitive, motor, language, and psychological developmental deficits associated to HIV in children, these kids still need to receive as much stimulation as possible to develop their skills and intelligence. “Most children living with HIV in Panama come from impoverished families. Factors such as malnutrition, substandard living conditions and lack of developmental stimulation at home make these children more likely to fall behind in their developmental milestones” says Banus.
In 2010, approximately 60 percent of the pre-teens and teens who attended a majority of the Study Techniques classes graduated from that program, having passed a test requiring them to use the memory and association techniques they learned in the course. Similarly, two-thirds of the children in the Reading and Writing Skills group who attended classes regularly learned the use of new letters, and several students accomplished their goal of improving their reading comprehension.
Both groups have continued making progress through 2011, with a growing number of graduates moving on to other educational workshops, where they are still receiving support from AFA personnel when they need to do research on the web to complete their school assignments.
Nevertheless, the ILVEM-AFA partnership has not been without its challenges. Chief among those, says Banus, is overcoming the problems caused by the socioeconomic needs of the children’s families.
“Getting the kids to attend the weekly classes regularly is not easy … many families have a hard time affording the cost of transportation to the center. AFA however, helps out by providing financial assistance for bus fare to several families,” notes Banus.
“Some family members don’t seem to understand how important it is for their children to receive this kind of stimulation. Others do recognize its importance, but they get tied up with their jobs or caring for other children at home, and they can’t make it to the classes.” Banus continues. “Also, it’s a problem getting the children to practice their reading and writing skills at home. Most families don’t help with this, most likely because the caretakers themselves barely completed elementary education.”
However, these challenges have only increased the motivation of AID FOR AIDS Panama and its partners to make the relationship work.
“We remain overwhelmed by ILVEM’s gesture of solidarity and generosity,” says Trina María Aguais, Director of AFA Panama. “We were well aware at the time of the value of what they were offering us. We knew it was an offer we could not afford to waste. I’m pleased to say that we didn’t.”