School is special to mentally challenged kids

School is special to mentally challenged kids

The rapt silence inside the classroom is suddenly interrupted by the heavy downpour and ferocious sounds of thundercloud that reverberate inside intermittently. After a brief pause, several unsettled minds and their curious eyes overcome this periodic holdup and are back to where it all started.

Glued to a corner of the classroom, one of the special educators Jaya painstakingly is at work explaining just how to button a shirt. The more difficult part comes next. After several attempts, many still fail the button test. But Jaya is still happy--at least they tried and many even succeeded in a task that majority doesn’t even have to learn to do.

But at Sakar, the special school for the mentally challenged nestled in the picturesque small hill township of Sundernagar near Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, it's an everyday challenge.

Sakar, which means “to accomplish” is unique in many ways. This special school is run entirely through the participation of members of civil society. They donate for a cause that helps run this initiative. This place of learning has so far survived without any government aid or official support. That's not all. Sakar is coordinated by a good Samaritan, Sheetal Sharma, who works as a government official during the weekdays and coordinates the entire initiative after office hours or on weekends. A good part of her salary goes to making sure the establishment runs purposefully.

What offers this initiative a distinct advantage is that the staff have experienced the suffering from close quarters. Someone in their family has been affected and this place offers a strong connect between the teacher and the taught. 

It started some years ago with 4-5 children. Today, the place boasts of  65 children. Raghav Gupta was just five years when he first stepped into this place. He was bed-ridden and could do nothing on his own. Raghav is 10 today. He runs around ecstatically, plays like any other child and is fast getting to learn how to do things independently.

Traditionally, the mystic setting of the hill state has often provided fodder for supernatural tales, paranormal activities often aggrandising superstition, that determine the behaviour of locals. Many  such children had been labelled victims of an evil cast.

Talking to Deccan Herald, Sheetal recalls the initial days when parents were very reluctant to send their children to this special school. “We went door to door convincing parents about the special education and scientific intervention that the mentally challenged would require as they grow up. But many were willing to let things be as they were citing the will of the god,” Sheetal said.

After repeated counselling, the numbers started to show up. Today, Sheetal says, it's not the same as it was when it began. “What matters now is the deliverable quotient. These children are at least able to do things independently. The exercise is pointless without this,” she said.

Each morning, a couple of mini buses reach every single house to pick up children and ferry them to school. Towards late afternoon, children are dropped home safely. The establishment runs as a society with Jitinder Bhardwaj as its president. His wife Jaya Bhardwaj, who is in charge of the school, accompanies children on board the bus..
The learning at the school is beyond the button test. It's a laborious, even more patient task teaching the mentally challenged in matters of personal hygiene. These kids, Sheetal says, have to be toilet trained and behaviourally adaptable to be able to live independently.

Talking to Deccan Herald, Sundernagar resident KD Khosla, a retired Chief Engineer with HP Electricity Board who has been pitching in with monetary and other support for the school, said: “Vocation education being rendered at the school is a perfect way with which a sustainable model for self-reliance can be put to effect for these children. The idea is to involve them in the mainstream of things,” he said. Their training involves making candles, paper bags and other everyday items.  

From Rs 100 to a collective sum of Rs 15,000 per month that many residents of the nearby BBMB colony collect and contribute, the school has been able to financially sustain, at least so far.

The irony though is that even after repeated proposals for grants to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, nothing has moved forward. “In eight  years, we have not received any funds from the government. We did move proposals with the ministry, but each time they come up with some or the other objection. By the time we clear them, we are told to apply again in the next financial year,” Sheetal, who herself is a qualified special educator, rued.

The initiative, however, is unfazed with any such alleged red tape. It's the community participation that matter most for this project to exist and sustain. Sheetal says when this project was in its nascent stage, her father allowed her to use his small premises to run the school. Her husband Mahesh Sharma supported her with tuition fee.

Now the premises is some 5 km out of the township on a small piece of land. The school structure has been built on loan through banks. But for now, beyond everything, it's the narrow village road leading to the school that is bothering her the most. “Monsoons are really heavy in the hills. The road is rocky and unlaid. It poses risk each time the children are ferried on wheels. We have brought the matter to the notice of the Sub-Divisional Magistrate. Let's hope someone listens to us,” she said.  

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