Now, branded jewellery by special kids. That's how Pathway proves what the mentally challenged can do
Twenty-three-year-old Venkatesh looks intently at a dupatta. Within a few minutes, he creates an earring that matches the hues on the dupatta's border. There's emerald green and sapphire blue. He goes a bit further and introduces a touch of silver to add glamour to his contemporary creation. Sharing space with Venkatesh in the nondescript hallway are ten others - mostly teenaged girls and boys, stringing beads and conjuring up colourful pieces of jewellery and artefacts. So what's special, you might ask. The fact is that Venkatesh and his friends have different levels of mental retardation. They are all under the care of Pathway, a centre for "Rehabilitation and Education of Mentally Retarded," in Thiruvanmiyur (Ph: 98400 84988). That explains why their jewellery is branded "Special Creations." "Special Creations" has already made an entry into the city's glamour circuits. The jewellery worn by the 2006 Miss Chennai finalists were created by these children, actor-director Revathy Menon showcased some pieces in her 20-episode television show for the Petroleum Conservation Research Association and designer Chaitanya Rao too had picked up a black-and-white creation for one of the films for which he was the stylist. "The idea is to show how liabilities can be turned into assets," says A.D.S.N. Prasad, founder-director, Pathway. "The jewellery-making workshop is one of our endeavours to unlock the potential of these children. Such programmes promote hand-mind coordination, a sense of independence and social interaction. These children display a wide range of skills despite their learning, communicating and behavioural disorders." Sudha Subramanian, trustee and director of Special Projects, Pathway, says, "We have approached an export house too with `Special Creations.' They couldn't believe these children were capable of giving such a finish. Jewellery making is not just about understanding patterns, it helps the inmates grapple with life as well." Elaborating on Pathway's other vocational programmes for its 100-odd inmates, Prasad says, "We have a full-fledged bakery unit where these children do everything - from mixing the dough to slicing the bread. They are even taught to ride two-wheelers and deliver them to BPOs. At our printing unit, our inmates produce manuals and visiting cards. We also run a carpentry unit for 35 adult mentally retarded inmates at our Vocational Training Centre for Handicapped in Koothavakkam on Mahabalipuram Road. The furniture at Pathway's homes was created by them. Besides, they have undertaken interior work for outsiders. Vocational activity is not complete if there's no money involved. So we pay salaries to our children to boost confidence levels. What's the point in creating things that don't sell? So we approach offices and companies for getting printing orders and selling our bakery products. But when we work in a commercial context, we have to compete with other manufacturers. It's a difficult world out there. We try and convince people that if they are not satisfied with our products, we are even willing to take back rejects. It's not donations that we are seeking; we want to prove what these children are capable of. Most of them were cast away by society because of their mental condition." What started as a `street school' for two mentally challenged kids in Gandhi Nagar three decades ago, today runs like a well-oiled machine in three different locations - Thiruvanmiyur, Koothavakkam and Madhuranthakam. "The Pamela Martinez Pathway Agro Farm for Children (named after its donor) in Madhuranthakam is spread over 60 acres. Home to `normal' orphaned children and children of destitute women, the agro farm also has an English medium school. Most of the efforts to integrate special kids into mainstream society stop with armchair discussions. So we decided to run our own school to facilitate `inclusion' of the challenged children. The process has already begun. We want normal kids to accept them as equals. And challenged kids need models to fall into a pattern," says Prasad.
"In July, Pathway will conduct a national symposium on `Vocational Success with Mentally Challenged.' It will be a forum for us to learn and exchange views on what we can achieve with mentally disabled children," says Sudha. True, going by Pathway's model, one can't dispute the productive potential of the mentally retarded. As the children toss their heads back and forth and sing a prayer song, their spirit stirs you and you leave with the thought that God doesn't create disabled souls. T. KRITHIKA REDDY