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Inside Track: Helping kids with disabilities gain control of their lives
Andrea Benyovszky, a special needs teacher from Hungary, works to expand conductive education in the United States.
The accent is what most people notice first about Andrea Benyovszky.
Many guess that it’s French or Russian, she said, but few can correctly pinpoint the Hungarian in her w’s pronounced like v’s.
What most people probably notice next, however, is that she has a big heart for children with special needs. That passion was the reason Benyovszky came to Grand Rapids from Hungary 15 years ago on a mission to bring conductive education here.
Since then, she’s been serving as the program director for the Conductive Learning Center, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that offers Hungarian-developed conductive education for those from birth to 26 years old who have motor skill disabilities.
The landmark center, located at 2428 Burton St. SE, is unique in its close relationship with Aquinas College — the only higher education institution in the United States that runs a Physical and Otherwise Health Impaired, or POHI, methodology teacher training and certification program that both uses the conductive education method and is connected to a center that uses it.
Aside from running the center, Benyovszky is also an adjunct professor of conductive education at Aquinas.
Conductive education is a unique mix of education and rehabilitative therapy based on close interaction with the patient, Benyovszky said. The Grand Rapids center was founded through the Peto Institute in Budapest, where Benyovszky worked and was trained.
Although not as well established in this country, there is growing interest in conductive education both locally and globally, she said.
“I’m still working (with) the International Peto Institute of Budapest. This institute was established by András Peto in the 1950s, and we are serving kids with motor disabilities, mainly cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Parkinson’s,” she said.
“This institute — the method we are practicing there — it became very popular in Hungary. It is part of the educational system.”
Benyovszky was born in Budapest and originally wanted to be a teacher. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in education from Budapest Teacher College and then a master’s degree in special education from Eötvös Loránd University. She also is participating in Eötvös Loránd’s Ph.D. program in educational and behavioral science.
While earning her bachelor’s degree, she became familiar with conductive education and later received training in it from the Peto Institute. It fascinated her, she said, and she eventually worked with the institute to develop conductive education programs in Ireland, England, Norway and Belgium.
“It was just my interest,” she said. “When I finished my first college, I told my husband I really wanted to do it, and he said, ‘Go and do it.’”
In 1999, Benyovszkywas asked to come to Grand Rapids and work with Aquinas College to help run a conductive education summer program. She expected to come for a brief stay and assess the situation, but after a year, Aquinas asked her to stay on and start a training program through the Peto Institute. One year has now turned into 15, she said.
The chance to train instructors and develop the program from within the culture is what especially attracted her to stay, she said.
“You cannot have good conductive education programs without local teachers. You need those,” she said. “Hungarians are very nice, but every country has to have their own conductive teachers who’ve grown up in the system and are consistently providing conductive education.”
Benyovszkysaid the Conductive Learning Centeroffers 10 intensive four-week sessions a year, including a summer program. Each session has about 20 to 30 children.
Children from birth to age 6 are part of the early stage program five days a week, but once they are older, they are required to be in school so their conductive education becomes part time, she said.
The center’s staff currently includes three teachers and nine Aquinas students who are in the college’s POHI training program and receive credit for their involvement at the center, Benyovszky said.
“We want the (Aquinas) students to come here and work with the kids from the first day, teaching conductivity training,” she said. “This is very hard work, and we work hard to help the kids get to the next level.”
Although the center offers scholarships and does fundraising, conductive education is still pricey, with costs varying from $1,600 to $2,000 per session, Benyovszky said.
The hardest part of her job is assessing families for treatment, she said. She listens to their stories and comes away moved each time at how much a family is willing to sacrifice for their child.
No one signs up to have a kid with special needs, she said.
“When they are coming here, sometimes they are running from one therapy to another, or they are not happy with the school system or the medical system, and no one sees their child as a person,” she said.
“(They say), ‘I want to fix the legs,’ or ‘I want to fix the muscles, the learning ability’ … but sometimes the kid’s personality is just left behind from the visible medical problems. Those are the hardest moments — when you meet with the challenges the parents have to go through emotionally and financially.”
Part of what makes conductive education unique from western therapy is that it focuses on the child’s overall physical development, not just a specific functional progress, Benyovszky said.
“We are focusing on the small population of those who have brain damage where it’s affecting personal skills, learning skills, motor functions. But we don’t take these apart,” she said. “It’s not one hour of speech therapy, it’s not one hour of physio or OT. It’s ‘you are a person and I want you to want to get better.’”
She understands that traditional therapy is seeking broader rehabilitation needs, and she said she doesn’t want to criticize anyone’s practice. But there is, however, something to be said for those with complex brain damage. Such patients need more than just one-hour therapy sessions, and anything less just isn’t as effective, she said.
“Conductive education works the whole person. It’s never just the leg, just the arm, even when they are learning to feed themselves, to sit at the table, to hold the spoon, they learn to chew with their mouths closed,” she said.
“You motivate them, you sing a song with them, teach them … just like a normal kid. It’s not one-hour therapy. … We are facilitating teaching the kids how to do things by themselves.”
Since the center’s opening, it has serviced more than 700 families — half of them from out of state, with some coming from as far away as Alaska.
When asked if there was any child who has stood out to her, Benyovszky smiled and shrugged.