Come September, students of Shankar Foundation look forward to a busy festive season. “It begins with Dasara and Deepavali and goes on through Christmas and New Year,” says Founbdation co-founder Sridevi Prasad, showing us the results of her small seeds of faith. The centre for differently-abled has various rooms where aspects of the vocational prowess of students are on display.
Monitored by Subhashini Sattuluri, a group of girls learn the basics of making handmade soaps. In another room, Abhilash and Gnaneshwar talk about their favourite sweets while stirring groundnuts in a machine that extracts cold-pressed oil. Elsewhere, 23-year-old Anirudh Krishnamarri and his friends are counting disposable plates, even as Varun Chand Vemuganti and his group are packing millet powder. The youngsters may need some supervision by staff, but these activities are their steps towards greater independence. After all, it is their salary day.
Empowerment and employment
With over 38 years of experience in the field of special education, Sridevi confesses that her focus was initially on academics for special children. “When I started Shraddha Centre For Special Education, my goal was not skill development. But I would wonder what happens to all those special children who are not into academics. Thus began our vocational training programme,” she shares. The Foundation’s sister concerns include the centres Samardh-Saakaar and a residential hostel Sannidhi-Swanthana at Khairatabad and Ramoji Film City which impart life skills and vocational training.
Gradually, the production units began teaching special youngsters various skills and when parents saw a positive change in their children, they turned into pillars of support. Varun Chand’s mother Aparna Vemuganti, who runs Holistic Wellness organic stores (one recently launched at SLN Terminus, Gachibowli), explains the reasons for shifting one of her packing units to the centre. “It was a big step for my son to pick products from the shelf and also to realise that he is going to the mall for work. I see mothers doing so much for their children and if we can collaborate, we can create wonders. If I think of only my son’s employment then I am limiting the opportunities. Now that my child has benefited, why not others?”
Empowerment and employment are the two key words that motivated her to launch an organic brand. “Companies either pay donations under CSR (corporate social responsibility) scheme or employ one or two youngsters. What happens to the rest?” asks Aparna who began with a notebook making unit and then ventured to organic products by launching a store in Himayathnagar. When she saw the transformation in her son Varun, an international swimmer, they opened a second store and launched their own organic brand with 27 grocery items.
- Tamboolam bags
- Organic sweets and namkeens
- Readymade murukku flour
- Sweet boxes (Assorted millet and dry fruit laddus)
- Decorated clay diyas
- Diyas made from cow dung
- Customised corporate gifts on order
- Greeting cards for all seasons made by residential students as part of free strokes art therapy.
Recognition works wonders
Mothers have also created a network to build a sustainable model and generate revenue. Manjusha Gunukula, a former IT professional, used her 23 years experience in the IT industry to provide other avenues. After her data entry training programme for children with special needs succeeded in Bengaluru, the module was introduced at the Samardh-Saakaar centre in a systematic way.
Subhashini Sattuluri, also parent of a special child, teaches soap making. “My son may be employed in one unit but another’s strength may be different. Irrespective of what our children can do, the onus is to strengthen their desire to work. We feel satisfied when we see them look forward to getting their salaries; they are so motivated,” shares Manjusha. Recognition and appreciation play a vital role in this spectrum of vocational training but most often the differently-abled face sympathy. “When someone donates money, we tell them our kids need work, not money. Work empowers them, controls their behavioural problems and makes them happy and confident,” observes Manjusha, adding that such employment is also a lesson on identity, dignity of labour and underlines the importance of parental support groups. “Parents alone cannot discover their special child’s strength; being in a group helps address their concerns.”
Aparna shares memories of her frustrating moments. “I went through all the stages — asking why only my son, how I can make him normal, etc Then I realised work is therapy.”
Sridevi emphasises that special children above 15 are suitable for vocational training and until they reach that age, they can take up suitable academics and special skills.
More power to all these parents for supporting each other.