When Sneha was born with Down Syndrome, doctors told her parents she would not walk or talk easily. When little Sneha was three years old, her parents looked for schooling options. Almost every school they visited closed their doors saying they cannot cater to her learning needs, even if it just meant giving her an environment with other children. Sneha was the inspiration for Gitanjali Sarangon to start the Snehadhara Foundation. Today Sneha has created a space for 40 other children who are a part of this set up and many others who are associated with this organisation across the city of Bangalore in India.
Today, at the tender age of seven, Sneha speaks five different languages. She sings and dances along with the other children who go to Snehadhara. Started in 2012, it aspires to be a safe, uninhibited space, and a blank canvas for children to learn joyously with lots of creativity. Children with all different abilities and ages—Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Autism, and Cognitive Delays attend the centre. The youngest child is 4; the oldest is 32.
The learning at Snehadhara is two-way. In fact, all those involved in the process of being with the children co-create spaces for each other. The children are far more evolved than many of us as in their world of acceptance. There are no biases, judgements, or prejudices. They unconditionally allow us entry into their beautiful lives.
Art for Education
Snehadhara Foundation is the first centre in India that uses Arts Based Therapy as the only methodology to work with children and adults with special needs. What is the premise of this methodology? Special needs is not just a politically correct term but indeed a recognition that “needs” exist in seemingly normal people like you and me as well. Communication is most often not about speech. To communicate with someone whose perceptual world is different from ours, we need a medium that is all pervasive. The method is the Arts.
Children learn intuitively and not intellectually. Art implies a form of expression, which is more appealing and hence, more comprehending. It has a lasting impact on the mind, and is thought provoking.
The various forms of art–visual, music, drama, dance, play, and fine arts–express mundane, staid, and, sometimes, complex concepts in a way that does not require too much mental exertion. Art captures within its fold, anything and everything, be it scientific or natural. It is this versatility of art that can be used to impress young minds, trigger their imagination, and comprehend concepts that form the basis of education.
Arts Based Therapy is the evidence-based use of multi-art forms that encompasses music, drama, dance, play, fine arts, imagination, and story-telling to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship. Arts Based Therapy enhances development through the deliberate combination and involvement of both the body and mind. This unique approach holistically addresses all the critical dimensions of development, namely, cognition, behaviour, and social skills.
India is a deeply-rooted society of caste with gender inequality issues; one that weighs its opinions of people in the backdrop of class and religion. It barely gives people an equal sense of empowerment, let alone those with learning disabilities, who at every turn have to fight for opportunities. Gitanjali wanted to create a space free from discrimination, a place where children are loved for who they are and not what they do. This encouraged her to create Snehadhara, a continuum of love and compassion that has embraced so many lives in its fold, nurturing and tendering many.
Each of the 22 members of the team play a unique role in building the organisation to where it is. What holds this diverse group of individuals together each day is their need to examine themselves. The only qualification that one needs is to have their heart in the right place.
The group begins the day at 9 am by harmonizing themselves before the arrival of children. The time is spent meditating, reflecting upon the previous day’s activities, and enjoying each other’s company. The one hour in the morning before the children come is the “me/we” time. Teachers need to centre themselves before they welcome the children in.
A Day Full of Art
Most of the children arrive at 10 am and leave at 5 pm. The children are divided based on the identified domain of interventions in five groups: Early intervention, Functional Academics, Academics, Pre-vocational, and the Activities for Daily Living group for long-term care giving. The program follows an interdisciplinary approach that integrates practical, artistic, and conceptual elements. Apart from visual arts, voice, movements, storytelling, and drumming, gardening and pottery are subjects that have recently been included in the weekly schedules. Activities like cycling, badminton, football, running, and carpentry are all a part of the curriculum, adding to the rigor and enthusiasm among the children at the centre.
On any single day the children are exposed to both one-on-one as well as group sessions. Every classroom at the centre has a special name.
The motor room is romba romba bhaag (“run fast” in Hindi),
The art room is mallebilu (“rainbow” in Kannada)
The language room is alef (the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet)
The music room is bekanze (“healer” in Tibetan)
The space for play therapy is khaleba kheleba (“eat and play” in Oriya)
The groups meet in the various designated spaces. The lunch and snack times are together for the entire group. This is an activity in itself where most of the social domain goals are achieved.
The end of the day is marked by connecting to the rhythm within. The entire group gathers together for meditation and stillness. This helps everyone centre their energies.
The best thing a parent of a child with different needs can do is to take care of oneself. Having the children over at the centre every Friday night has opened possibilities of learning and independence for the children and the parents. The “What after me question?” that looms over every parent finds a little answer when we know that there is a community that lives our life with us. The central thrust of the overnighters at Snehadhara is to take responsible relationships forward with the parents. Over the last two years, overnighters have built better relationships amongst the parents and in the way they engage with children.
The Buddy Program
Support not only comes from loving parents and teachers, but friends watching out for each other. Paired up with each other as buddies, children discover together during classes, help each other navigate class requirements, physically support one another, and, most importantly, enjoy each other’s friendship. Buddies bolster a sense of oneness at the centre. The premise of this is to strengthen the value that every experience, every child is a teacher.
Less than five years old, Snehadhara has already made an impact on the lives of many children and their families. Triumphs of children are not measured by the marks they receive in exams, but the confidence they have in themselves, with the freedom to express themselves as they truly are, with happiness.
The following is a reflection from a mother who sent across this touching farewell message before her family moved outside of India.
“Raghav joined the Snehadhara team as a shy touch-me-not child. He was very sensitive to people’s touch. When I discussed this with Geetu, she told me to give him the space in his life that he truly deserves. She was confident that one day Raghav would come around. And trust me, those words were real magical for me; who like any other parent was amidst emotional conflicts about accepting my child as he is.
“The main strength of the Snehadhara team is the positive energy that they have within themselves that spread across to others as well. This team has made me realize the positive energy that I could derive from my son. These God’s own Children give us a new insight into this world and life itself!
“Today, at the end of two-and-a-half years, I’m sharing a wonderful friendly relationship with Raghav (of course, sometimes all the motherly anxieties take over).”
|Averse to people touching, hugging, kissing||Loves to hug and hold hands|
|Non tolerance towards painting||Loves painting|
|Self-help skills was tough to teach||Independently eats, dresses, undresses by himself|
|Would become cranky when not able to express||Manages himself independently (Thanks to Overnighters and Outdoors)|
|Could not blow||Blows off even candles|
|Did not smile||Gives a cute smile even when he meets strangers|
—Soymya, Raghav’s Mother
The arts not only encourage healthy emotional development of children, but a way of joyously learning academics with success. With the aim of providing education to all children, youth, and adults in India, the Indian government launched the Open Basic Education (OBE) Programme, an alternative equation program equivalent to an elementary level education.
With request from some of the parents for children to write recognized exams, Snehadhara chose to be a learning centre for the National Indian Open School (NIOS). The centre believed that the arts art are an effective medium to engage in higher academia. In preparation for exams, content from textbooks is taught through multiple art forms including storytelling, theatre, music, drumming, and dance.
Naman reaffirms the belief that art is not only joyous, but is effective for academics. Over the span of six months, 15-year old Naman worked through a curriculum for 3-5th standards in five subjects. Naman surprised teachers with his ability to comprehend, reproduce lessons, and apply his learning to other situations. He passed his papers with an overall mark of 72%, proving how much children can organically learn in a fun-filled non-intimidating environment!
Dressed in jeans and a short Kurta, 18- year old Umaima walked into a government school classroom along with Gitanjali to work with children in seventh standard as part of Snehadhara’s “Art in Education” project. Little did she know that the class would teach her what inclusion and acceptance actually means.
Gitanjali says this:
“Insisting on holding my books and mobile, Umaima looked more commanding than me. The class of 36 stood up to greet the two of us. Introducing myself to the class, I didn’t quite realize I’d miss introducing Umaima. A child in the class raised his hand and asked me, “What is the name of the principal Madam?” Much before I understood whom the question was addressed to, Umaima replied loudly in her typical sing song style, “Umaima Sadaf.” The class giggled. She didn’t sound like a principal. After the giggles stopped, I told the class that Umaima is intellectually disabled. I didn’t have to bring her next time if the class had challenges accepting her.
“Even before I finished talking, a child sitting in the front bench closest to Umaima stood up and said, “No…no Ma’am, nodi nanagu hindi disability edhe (Even I have a Hindi disability). I can’t read Hindi, although many others can.” Tears rolled down my eyes. This is what I call inclusion. These children are part of the society that will help us expand the Universe.”
Snehadhara is here to appeal to the compassionate side that exists in all of us.
Gitanjali is dedicating her life to give children with special needs a chance at an even playing field. It is an on-going process that requires sacrifices and commitments every day. Shattering the biases of even one person, is an achievement. She doesn’t want to change the world by herself. She wants the world to join in her efforts, without judging one another. That would be a victory like no other. Her efforts towards social inclusiveness are not just to show these children a world outside of their cocoon but also to lift people from their mundane lives and move out of their prejudiced shells. The twain shall meet. With the efforts taken so far, Snehadhara is already taking big strides. It wants a safe, peaceful, and joyous community for all of us.