Reading Time: 5 minutesA trip to Australia seems to have done wonders for these special needs kids from India
It was December 2013, during the Special Olympics held in Newcastle, Australia. Amongst the 2500 athletes from 30 countries, including 400 participants from India, were eight athletes from Tender Heart School in Bhatola, Faridabad.
The students won an impressive tally of 13 medals, which changed their lives forever.
It was the effort of a few selfless people that made this possible. The athletes had left India as shy and isolated young people but went back as local heroes.
Tender Heart school is a non-government, not-for-profit school ten kilometres from Faridabad near Delhi. Renu Bali founded it 16 years ago with the aim of providing social and educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. The school provides education to both non-disabled children and those with physical and mental disabilities and works to empower women by teaching them sewing and needlework skills so that they can find work.
In the school, the 200 non-disabled children and 50 special needs children all play and study together.
“With the special needs children, the emphasis is not only on providing an education but also on making those often rejected people a part and parcel of society,” said Renu Bali.
The story of the athletes began when Bali observed the children happily playing games. She wrote to the Special Olympics Bharat Committee and started the children on a special training program.
“After this, I stepped up participation in training camps. These were often held interstate and I had a tough time convincing parents of children to let them go, but my efforts paid off,” Renu said.
Although the first training camps were difficult for the kids, as they were away from home, she noticed that travel and game participation was making a huge difference in them.
“Each time they came back with new words in their vocabulary and started doing very well at district, state and then national level games”.
“My aim is to make these children stand on their feet and sustain themselves,” she added.
Tender Heart has international volunteers that help train students in computers and other skills.
“There have been many volunteers from Australia and with their help we are trying to up-skill our teachers to use better training methods for special needs students,” explained Renu.
As Edmund Burke once said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little”.
One volunteer who assisted Tender Heat in particular, is photographer Katy Fitzgerald, who was crucial in getting the children to the Olympics.
After volunteering at Tender Heart, Fitzgerald held an exhibition that expressed her love for India through photographs. The funds raised were used to bring the disabled children from India to Australia to participate in the games.
The experiences of these children mean a better future now seems a likely possibility to aspire for, not a hopeless dream.
These some of their stories:
Deepak, 20, Athletics
To save her son from a life of isolation, Deepak’s mother has woken up early every morning for the past five years to make an hour long journey to take him to Tender Heart. On his return from Australia, the whole village was out in the streets to welcome him. Not only did he win two medals, but he was also the first person in his village to have travelled abroad. The experience turned this silent boy to a confident young man. He has firmly conveyed to Renu Bali his intention to become one of the school drivers!
Bhupender, 21, Athletics
Bhupender was the most experienced athlete of the Tender Heart team, having participated some years ago in the Athens Special Games. His hyperactivity was what brought him to Tender Heart and athletics is what has allowed him to control it. In the last seven years, he has been waking up at 5am to run for two hours. He has a silver medal now to show for his efforts. He now would like to start training other children.
Vikram, 18, Table Tennis
Down Syndrome did not prevent Vikram from obtaining one silver and one bronze medal at the Special Olympics. At Tender Heart, he found the opportunity to study at his own pace.
“These children need special care and we need to adapt to them if we want to make it work,” said Kakoli, one of his teachers who accompanied him to the games. Vikram’s next challenge is basketball which he is training for every day.
Utkarsh, 14, Bocce
With a gold and a silver medal under his belt, teachers were surprised to find Utkarsh asking for extra homework on his return from Australia.
“I’m a smart boy,” he often reiterated to himself. His urge to learn more was not lost on them.
“His handwriting and Math skills have notably improved and best of all, he is now having fun when learning,” his teachers said. Now into badminton and basketball, he is training for the next challenge.
Piyush, 23, Athletics
Piyush’s parents died six years ago but he is lovingly cared for by his aunt. He grew up without friends. At Tender Heart, he felt at home. Athletics has helped him release his energy and winning two gold medals changed his life. He now has new friends and can be seen playing cricket every afternoon with other boys. The family recently participated in the Delhi Book Fair and Piyush gave a hand at the stand.
“He travelled from Faridabad to Delhi, confidently navigating public transport alone. What else can I ask for?” said his proud aunt.
Keshav, 12, Bocce
The baby of the team, Keshav’s bronze medal has changed his life and that of his immediate family. He is the youngest of three brothers, all with special needs. The little hero is now an inspiration for his older brothers who have suddenly realised the positive impact that sport can have. They want to follow their little brother’s footsteps and have the experience of travelling abroad!
Arti, 32, Bocce
Arti shares her life with her two brothers. She said on winning her bronze and silver medals, “These medals are for my brothers. They have been always there for me”. After the trip, Arti’s self-esteem has soared higher than ever. She is back to her daily training, preparing for the local, then hopefully regional, national and hopefully her next international game.
Being exposed to a different world in Australia, the children are now curious and want to explore more. They need financial and other support just to keep operating as a school and to meet the day-to-day expenses such as teacher salaries, electricity, computers, craft materials, learning equipment and books. For the Tender Heart team to continue to work such wonders, they would love for interested sponsors to get in touch.
Local contact Katy Fitzgerald, firstname.lastname@example.org or 0418 447 600, or visit www.tenderheartngo.org. for more information