In tune with children’s needs

Music therapist from Newfoundland praises Uganda school’s methods

Josh Pennell
Published on March 24, 2014
Joanna Parsons (left) stands with her friend, Anita Ayling, who is also a music therapist at Tunaweza. — Submitted photo

A Newfoundlander working in Uganda says this part of the world can learn a lot from a school for children with special needs where she works.

Joanna Parsons is a music therapist who was working in Nepal before Christmas. Wanting to continue living abroad, and having a dream of going to Africa, she started looking for options there. She stumbled upon a job description for a Uganda job posting in a centre called Tunaweza. She started communicating with the CEO of the centre and soon realized that working at Tunaweza with children with special needs was an opportunity she didn’t want to turn down.

“Special needs is an umbrella term for individuals who have medical, mental or psychological exceptionalities. The diagnosis of the children we see ranges from cerebral palsy, acquired brain injury, autism, intellectual disability, speech/language impairments and paralysis,” said Parsons.

Parsons is the head of therapy at Tunaweza. She oversees each therapy department to ensure quality therapy is being offered to the clients. She also works as a music therapist there. What makes the therapy at Tunaweza different, she said, is the co-operative and holistic approach among its various therapists.

“Generally, different therapists work separately from one another and teams are not commonly found serving certain populations of people in one environment. When Tunaweza receives a new client we offer them a complete team assessment. Afterwards, as a group, we decide the child’s needs and which therapies will benefit their development,” Parsons said.

Assigned therapists then provide individual children with individual sessions. But they also work as a team by reviewing aims, objectives, techniques, and issues with one another.

“I’ve worked in many health profession settings before, but I’ve never discovered one so focused on caring for each individual child as holistically as possible,” said Parsons.

Centres like Tunaweza do exist, Parsons added, but they are not nearly common enough. The word “Tunaweza” literally translates to “we can” — a definition that highlights the vision of the centre, which Parsons describes as a will to “empower each child to see and reach his or her own potential as a human being.”

Parsons used the example of one little boy to illustrate the potential of the centre — a child diagnosed with autism who exhibits very aggressive behaviors at times, but who Parsons also said is affectionate and bright.

“Our first music therapy session with him reminded me why I love what I do,” said Parsons. “Prior to our session he was having a tantrum, yet we managed to bring him into our space. Once we started playing for him he immediately calmed down. He spent the rest of the session actively making music and positively interacting with (others). He left the room a completely different child than the one who walked in.”

It’s a very challenging environment but the accomplishments are equally as grand, said Parsons.

“I witness a team of therapist sitting down and discussing ways of helping a child, and I witness a loving environment where everyone is committed to every child that walks through the door. Every day is a challenge but there hasn’t been one that doesn’t make it worth the effort.”