Katy Thuleen of Golden Valley, Minnesota, recently hosted visitors from the African nation of Zambia interested in learning American ways of helping people with disabilities.Zambia is an extremely poor nation, where the life expectancy is about 40 years and the average yearly wage less than $400. This particular Zambian group came courtesy of Catholic church and private U.S. funding, and consisted primarily of priests, nuns, brothers, and parents of children with disabilities.

Thuleen was asked to be a host because she is the Minneapolis-St. Paul manager of Joni and Friends, a U.S. faith-based disability outreach. Also, her wheelchair-using son Zach has cerebral palsy. At Zach's birth, doctors said he would never be independent, lift his head on his own or be aware of his surroundings. "But that didn't happen at all," said 48-year-old Thuleen in a telephone interview. "Right now he's a very active, typical teenager."

As for the visiting Zambians: "The group wanted to visit a 'typical' family affected by disability," Thuleen said. "They wanted to see an accessible home and talk with Zach's siblings. And they wanted to learn what our government does, because people with disabilities don't receive any government support there."

One of the Zambian priests had thousands of parishioners affected by disability, and one nun worked at a "group home" housing 1,200 people with disabilities. While in America, they were acquiring knowledge in order to properly draw up a realistic proposal to present to their national government.

"They were especially interested in the accessibility of our home," said Thuleen, whose residence has lifts, accessible bathrooms, and a ramp leading to the basement. "They also wanted to know about my son's education. Zach became involved in an early intervention program at six weeks old, and today a number of teachers, therapists, and health professionals help him. They don't have all that for people with disabilities in Zambia."

She said the Zambians were gracious and humble, and spoke respectfully of the people they served.

"At the end of our visit together," she said, "we all prayed, and they sang me a song. They gave me a copper bracelet, and said that copper in their country was believed to have healing qualities. It wasn't they felt I needed any healing, but that they wanted to keep me strong because of my work as a parent and with Joni and Friends."

Contact danieljvance.com [Blue Valley Sod and All American Foods grants made this column possible.]

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