A Transnational Mission
By: Brett Seekford
Posted: November 7, 2014
Dr. Trevor Stokes, a faculty member in the Department of Graduate Psychology and Director of the Alvin Baird Attention and Learning Disabilities Center, traveled to the Country of Georgia (Sakartvelo) this past summer for his fifth visit endeavoring to complete unfinished work.
Five years ago, after repeated entreaties from colleagues and friends in New Zealand, Stokes agreed to visit Georgia in order to work on behalf of Children of Georgia, a non-governmental organization (NGO). His mission in Georgia was to train psychologists, teachers, social workers and mental health workers in the development of children’s services. Specifically, he and his colleagues in the NGO sought to address the lack of services to children with developmental disorders and autism. He also worked to alleviate the strife faced by orphans by providing support for families in foster homes. The work was very intense, but made easier with the help of two colleagues.
Ana Barkaia and Nino Chkhaidze, both native Georgians who are now graduate students at JMU, met Stokes during his first visit to the country working with Children of Georgia to confront the issues plaguing the country’s youth. “We did trainings for parents of children with autism together with Dr. Stokes; we planned this training several months before going there. We also did some trainings for Children of Georgia’s staff,” Barkaia explained.
Stokes, Barkaia and Chkhaidze also worked with parents to aid them with their children’s development. “I appreciated the opportunity to visit many family homes to consult with parents about their children’s development,” Stokes stated.
Along with his presentations and consultations with numerous government officials, families and mental health workers, Stokes also became immersed in the history and culture of the region to advance his mission. “Georgia has been responding to independence from the Soviet Union, internal revolution, and most recently invasion by armed forces,” he explained. “There have been many societal challenges, among which are the social turmoil presented by internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled from the battlefields of war in 2008, the plight of children in orphanages and the services available to children with developmental disabilities and autism.”
Barkaia and Chkhaidze also helped Stokes better appreciate the culture and language of Georgia. “I have found the verbal language has a beauty and poetry as a unique communication style that incorporates the cultural value of appreciation of social relationships,” he stated. Still learning the native tongue, both Georgians acted as interpreters for him as he sought to teach others about childhood development and services that could aid in making it smoother. He clarified part of their role in helping him effectively perform his job: “Ana has been my primary teacher and Nino has been the first person I have tried my new language skills with to see how I am doing.”
In describing Georgian people as especially hospitable and welcoming, he also said that his favorite cultural activity in which he has participated is the Supra. “This is a celebration banquet with eloquent positive toasts and discussions along with distinctive foods such as kharcho, ghomi, mchadi, khachapuri, lobio, elarji, satsivi, and khinkali. The Children of Georgia team has given me a wonderful farewell Supra each time just prior to my return to the United States,” he expressed. He has also participated in Supras with the families of Barkaia and Chkhaidze.
“We have so few behavior analysts, and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a field of study just developing in Georgia; all ABA services are located only in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia,” Barkaia explained. “I would like to contribute in developing high quality ABA services in other parts of Georgia where the need of these services is high.” She also intends to continue her work through the NGO to expand the range of services available to children.
Likewise, Chkhaidze plans on returning to her home country to work with Children of Georgia. “Although I enjoy being in the United States very much, enjoy many aspects of living here, have formed some very meaningful relationships, my plan still remains to go back to Georgia, and help further develop psychological services there,” she revealed.
Stokes makes it clear that more work is needed in Georgia to better equip the country with the utilities to adequately address the needs of its youth. “We are developing training and research activities in Georgia that are similar to what we are doing here at JMU,” he explained.
He has seen substantial success since his involvement with Children of Georgia began. Autism awareness and knowledge about ways to treat the disorder have both increased. Furthermore, many orphans have been admitted to foster homes. Children of Georgia has progressed greatly.
With these feats likely not far from his mind, Stokes stated, “I am hoping this collaboration will continue for many years.”