The Special Education Leader Who Taught Me What Compassion Looks Like—In Switzerland

05/12/2017 08:35 am ET Updated May 12, 2017

Earlier this week, I posted a story about ICS, the private Swiss school where my son with special needs, is now enrolled. The response to this post has been tremendous. But I haven’t shared an important part of our story— the unique woman who made our move to Zurich and my son’s entrance to ICS possible. I haven’t written about Sylvia Leck.

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Last year, I shot a tiny prayer across the sea, from Connecticut to Zürich, Switzerland. I hoped it might land in the heart of a person (a figment of my imagination perhaps?) with knowledge of special needs children, teaching experience, an open mind, and immense compassion. It seemed crazy. My prayer was really an email, aimed toward anybody who could help my son get back to school. I was told by multiple sources that there was only one person in the entire country of Switzerland who could help my child. Her name was Sylvia Leck and she ran an organization called Foundations for Learning.

I wrote:

Dear Sylvia,

We are considering a move from Connecticut to Zurich because of my husband’s job and also because we’ve had great difficulty finding appropriate education for our oldest son Thomas.

I wrote… He is gifted, hyperactive, impulsive, very kind, and athletic.

I didn’t sugarcoat anything. I wrote about his difficulties with social skills, the impossibility of finding a school for him in the U.S., and his resulting severe depression.

As I completed one more inquiry, I felt kind of depressed myself. I thought of all the people and institutions so far unable to help us. I wondered what Sylvia or anyone in Zürich had to gain by responding. I’d written a query on a couple of Swiss expat sites asking for recommendations for my child.

“Don’t move here,” one person had responded.

“They don’t help kids like that in Switzerland,” another said.

But I sent the email to Sylvia anyway, launched from a U.S. educational landscape that had demonstrated that it did not want to work with this type of child. Ever. That’s why I call the email a prayer. In order to send it, I had to believe something could change.

Sylvia responded the same day.

From first contact, thousands of miles away, a woman originally from the UK, living in Switzerland, seemed to understand my son and me. Her sing-song British voice welcomed me like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. It was friendly and accepting, and felt beyond foreign. She setup a phone consultation, and within days I was chatting on the phone with her as I walked down a long Connecticut Road, terrified we’d be disconnected.

“Sounds like a hard situation,” I remember her saying after listening. Though her tone was serious, it was also reassuring. She asked questions and listened more.

I waited for her to tell me to stay in Connecticut. I expected the flat road that we were on to continue forever.

“It sounds like he needs to be back in school,” she said, “As soon as possible…I’ll see what I can do… “

Later she said, “We’ll figure out a way to make this work, Amy.”

And that’s what Sylvia did. I’m telling you, the woman has arms. Her arms extended across the Atlantic, making me feel that she would not let us drown, that we could do this, together. She demonstrated respect (and still does today) for my husband and my opinions, my ideas, my knowledge about my child.

It was Sylvia who gave me the confidence that we could pickup our bags and move. It was Sylvia who studied the background of my child. It was Sylvia who arranged for us to visit her team of professionals, to visit ICS, to connect with parents, teachers and even another student online weeks before our move. It was Sylvia who waited for me to meet her, a few days before Christmas when family arrived in Zurich, and the rest of Switzerland was already on vacation. Sylvia was quite sick with a virus, but still hard at work, and she asked genuinely “How are you doing?” I could tell she truly wanted to know.

Later I learned that as a special education teacher, Sylvia had dreamt of starting a place like Foundations for Learning for many years before the doors actually opened. In Switzerland, this feat was incredibly unusual. I learned that she did not actually need our business, rather the entire country of Switzerland needs the services she now offers through her staff at Foundations For Learning. There are so many schools, so many kids who need people like Sylvia—people who want to help kids who aren’t so simple to teach. People who want to work with public and private schools, to listen to parents, to do what’s best for a child with special needs. People who want to make inclusion healthy, safe and possible.

“She has a heart of gold,” one parent said.

“There’s no one like Sylvia,” another said.

But I am hopeful. I’m hopeful that more people will not only call on Foundations for Learning to support their children, but I’m hopeful that more teachers, more administrators, more schools will learn from people like Sylvia.

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