Society: Educational aids used in some schools in Kerala are made at the vocational unit of Snehanilayam Special School.

All is quiet outside Snehanilayam Special School in Chembumukku. Except for the statue of St. Raphaela Mary, the patron saint that seems to be watching over the school and a school bus, there is nobody on the campus. That is until the Sisters of the Snehanilayam Sheltered Workshop, literally, open the doors to Snehanilayam Special School for children with special needs.

The Snehanilayam Special School, which was founded in 1977 and run by the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Society, is dedicated to teaching children with special needs (mentally challenged). The school is divided into five levels – pre-primary, primary, secondary, pre-vocational and vocational. In the last two stages the children are given vocational training. In 1987, when the first batch of students reached school leaving age, a need was felt to accommodate them in a setup that would be accepting of their abilities. Rather than put them in situations where they would be ill-equipped to handle, the school set up the vocational unit, the Snehanilayam Sheltered Workshop.

The buzz in the unit can be heard as we walk down the corridor towards it. Under the supervision of Jincy Vas, a special educator, and Francis Sypriyan, art teacher and Omana, a parent, Jobin, Jomy, Jithin, Sujin, Rishi, Vivek, Sajir, Sumod, Harikrishnan, Bejoy and their friends are busy making educational puzzles and teaching aids. Although their heads are down ostensibly at work, it is accompanied by bouts of whispering and giggling. They seem to be enjoying what they are doing.

Perfect for schools

Bright and cheerful jigsaw puzzles, letter, number and shape puzzles, parts of the body, vegetable and fruit shapes, stories, games, sizes…the educational aids, made by these youngsters, are perfect for schools. The unit also makes wooden cut outs of animation characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and gang. The irony is, of course, that these youngsters cannot comprehend the use of these aids.

Sr. Sangita, who is in charge of the unit, says, “If I ask any of these boys to give me 10 of these shapes…they will not know how. Most of them cannot count properly. Work is allotted according to the abilities of the children. Very few, in fact only one, is able to cut the hardboards on the machine. Suresh K.L. does the cutting,” she says. Sr. Sangita has been with the unit for the last five years. Suresh is among the first batch of students at the vocational unit. The work is divided, so one group does the sandpapering of wooden shapes and the other smoothens the shapes after a coat of primer. The third group handles the painting.

Omana moved from Vaduthala to Chembumukku to be closer to the school. She accompanies her son, Rishi to the school everyday. Rishi has been a student in the school for the last 19 years. “He enjoys coming here.” Rishi nods his head in the affirmative. That is true of all the boys there, Sr. Sangita adds. It is not all work here, some of them are members of a band, sport, dance, yoga and music therapy too are part of the activities.

In another room of the unit, where the painting is done, Satish is a picture of concentration. He carefully paints each apple-shaped piece of a puzzle. Francis says, “Everyday he comes and sits down to paint and will only stop when it is lunch time.” He is known for the finesse with which he does the work. Giving him company is Deepu who applies the primer. Satish is one among four students who are paid daily wages depending on the number of pieces he paints.

Struggle to keep going

“He and a couple of other boys have bank accounts, which they operate on their own. I just fill the slips and with a little help from the staff at the bank they manage,” say Sr. Sangita. Satish even contributed Rs. 35,000 when his family was building a house. The others get a token stipend of Rs. 100 to 300.

The going is tough for the vocational unit. The expenses on paint, plywood/hardboard and MDF boards are much more than what the unit makes from sales of the products in a month. Even the pricing is done with caution. Most of the sales come from educational trips (to Snehanilayam School) or participation in exhibitions such as Abilities Mela and the occasional orders for educational puzzles from schools. But closing the unit is not an option as “what will these boys do if this workshop is not there?” asks Sr. Sangita.

It is all a part of instilling a sense of achievement. “They don’t understand the value of the currency note, it is more about the intangible value which comes from a sense of achievement,” she says. The best part of the getting the ‘wages’ is writing (signing) their names after receiving their ‘wages’. After spending time with these youngsters, interacting with them it is clear that the intangible brings a qualitative difference to the lives of these youngsters.

Skills for life

● The timings of the school are from 9.30 a.m. – 3 p.m., Monday to Friday.

● Besides educational aids, the workshop also makes tissue holders, key chains, hooks, table mats, pen holders, pickles and costume jewellery.

● Some of the knick-knacks would make ideal corporate gifts.

● The unit undertakes orders from schools and other educational units and can make new items/designs.

● Help is most welcome in the form of sponsorships – of students and/or raw materials such as paint & plywood.

● Contact 9895240168 or log on to www.snehanilayam.org