Reflections from Mary Kuria, Director of Operations and Head of School at the Ubuntu Life Special Needs Centre, on a lifetime as an educator and advocate for Black health and wellness.
It’s almost lunchtime at the Ubuntu Life Special Needs Centre in Maai Mahiu, Kenya, and an anticipatory hum is building among the dozens of hungry learners who fill the classrooms surrounding Head of School Mary Kuria’s office.
You can feel the excitement and eagerness growing all around, but Mary is sitting, calm and poised as ever, hard at work behind her desk. Everyone will soon be well nourished and taken care of. They always are. In fact, addressing the most vital needs of dozens of children is invariably Mary’s top priority, one she approaches every day with the grace and confidence of a lifelong educator, healer, and advocate for children’s health and wellness.
Health and wellness is not just a lifelong passion and calling for Mary. It’s also the theme of Black History Month 2022. Here, in her own words, Mary offers sage advice for approaching Black health and wellness for children with special needs from the earliest ages, and her take on how, when our most vulnerable thrive, life gets better for all of us.
Mary started out her career as an educator in traditional schools. To make the leap to special education after many years, she surrounded herself with experts.
Special education teacher Brenda Kionge with students.
“I needed to surround myself with professionals who are experts in special needs,” Mary says. “We have worked together very closely for years, and I have learned a lot. It’s like I have gone back to school for special ed. I understand [the children’s] conditions, how we are going to help them. I just look at it now and I’m like, I should have done this earlier. It has become a calling. It is a joy.
In order to serve the special needs students in her school, Mary knew that the community, especially the parents, had to see a path forward for the children.
“I had to make the parents own up,” Mary says. “I started educating the parents that these kids are just kids like any other, and they can achieve a lot. Even if they don’t have speech, they can communicate in so many other ways.”
The stigma surrounding special needs in Kenya can be intense. Most of the mothers of students at the Special Needs Centre are single because, as Mary explains, “When you have a child with special needs, the man, their family, they all think it’s the woman’s fault and they leave.”
In fact, Mary estimates that around 85% of parents at the school are single mothers, and 65% of them were married before they had their special needs child. Mary knew that community education was the path forward to healing.
“There was a lot of stigma around special needs, and parents think of it as a big thing, and it’s their fault,” Mary says. “At first, very few people wanted to come to the school because of that stigma about special needs. One of the things that I focused on is community education. If we can educate the community about special needs, then they are going to stop putting a stigma on it. My hope more than anything else is that most of these disabilities would be identified earlier by the whole community.”
On these and many other fronts, Mary and her team have made great strides. Among their many successes, Mary counts reduced stigma toward special needs in the Maai Mahiu community as a top achievement.
“I would say we have reduced stigma by almost 50%,” she says. “We have t-shirts in town everywhere. We have been able to bring together the local community. Now, if somebody is looking at the local community for support, it can happen. It was very hard. But we have done that.”
Just then, the lunch bell rings, Mary rises from her chair, and walks out of her office door, ready to do what she does best.