When we see someone, especially a child who is mentally or physically disabled, we immediately feel sorry for him or her. We make utterances like “aney pau” or “sin” when we see this type of child. Some however, feel disgusted and turn away or make rude comments about them. The stigma associated with such individuals is still very much prevalent in society. Although people say that they aren’t judgemental about others, these statements are automatic responses. What we don’t always realise is that sometimes all what these differently abled people want is acceptance.
Having full of passion to make the differently abled individuals be accepted as equals, face society and live happily, Lakshmi Karunajeewa in 2006 spoke to a monk at the Karagampitiya temple requesting for space to start the Navodaya Special Children’s Foundation. The foundation is a non-profit school and she planned to teach such students the basics of looking after themselves and living in society. She was informed by the monk that there was an unused garage space that she could use temporarily. So, she decided to establish her foundation there. Within two weeks a relative of a colleague was able to bring a student to the foundation.
As the number of students at the school reached 15 and in the face of growing difficulties, for the want of space, Lakshmi was forced to move her school into the living room of her home. Despite all this, she continued with her work and put together a concert. The children currently enrolled at her school were able to perform and showcase their talents at the concert. A member of the audience, who resides in Canada, was struck by reality of the situation the children are in. She put Rs 1 lakh into the bank account of the school. With this greatly appreciated donation Lakshmi was able to start looking for another place where she could continue with her school. But when she told land owners the nature of the work, that she was involved with children, she was asked to pay an enormous rent for a very small space. Eventually, she was able to find a small space which was affordable. It was located at a convenient place.
Lakshmi and her team of 10 teachers teach these children how to look after themselves and live happily
Now the student population numbers 48 and the students are aged between 2 and 17. The school includes slow learners and children with mental illnesses such as Down’s Syndrome and Autism. Lakshmi and her team of 10 teachers teach these children how to look after themselves and live happily. The skills that are taught range from brushing their teeth to helping out around the house; where the students are made to chip in with cleaning and cooking. Besides acquiring basic life skills, the children are also given special medical attention by renowned therapists who treat them in the fields of physiotherapy, speech therapy and OT therapy.
During a typical school day the students start at 7.30 a.m. The children are pooled into 3 classes and have 40 minute periods during which they are taught skills such as how to write their name, simple math skills, religion and social life skills. Many of these kids cannot speak, hence the teachers teach them how to communicate by pointing at pictures or objects. Sign language is also used in the class. These kids are also given the opportunity to take part in extra-curricular activities like art competitions, dramas, dances among other activities. Navodaya Special Children’s Foundation also provides these students with lunch and morning tea as well as school uniforms.
The foundation also provides an opportunity to parents to have one-to-one meetings with teachers. During these meetings the teachers discuss the progress made by the children. The teachers also explain to the parents as to what they can do to help their children when at home. Many kids, who received the foundation for their education at Navodaya, are now studying at local schools. Some teachers are assisting organizations by shadowing their workers, so that they can acquire the skills needed to fulfill responsibilities at their places of employment.
Running an organization of this nature leads to many problems, the most obvious being the lack of funding. The staff at Navodaya often find it difficult to obtain the materials required to teach the children. Much finances are needed to settle payments which come in the form of rent and salaries of the employees. Further, they encounter the continuous stigma which the children and their parents have to live with. Whether it is coming to school by bus or engaging in another activity, these parents are often asked why their child is born this way? There are occasions when passersby offer them money.
The foundation also provides an opportunity to parents to have one-to-one meetings with teachers. During these meetings the teachers discuss the progress made by the children
These acts are demeaning to the family and makes it difficult for them to face the society. The staff at Navodaya strive to reduce the stigma associated with the disabilities of these students. These teachers encourage people to spend time with the children and also help out in the activities of the school. Students from The British School In Colombo and S. Thomas’ College drop in when possible and support Navodaya in every way possible. Efforts are also made to raise funds through the involvement of Interact Clubs. These clubs arrange school fund raising events on behalf of Navodaya. Some volunteers have also dedicated their time and efforts to help the children be happy and stay connected with the society.
With the help of such people Navodaya has been able to thrive and improve the services its offers. Its website www.navodayalanka.org further explains the philosophy behind the foundation and the services that are provided by the school.
Lakshmi’s dream for the school is growing bigger. Her dream of having a permanent residence for the children, engaging the children in vocational training projects and conducting awareness programmes on the rights of a person with a disability needs to be fulfilled.
If you were moved by reading about the services the Navodaya staff is providing these children, lend a helping hand in whatever way you can and bring a smile to the face of a child. Your contributions will help them lead a normal, happy life and face society with their heads held high.