Special Olympics: Eight participants, fourteen medals – An impressive tally

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Students from Tender Heart School are proud winners at the Special Olympics in Newcastle

Uttkarsh, Kakoli, Vishesh,  Renu, Keshav and Katy

Sometimes life brings you the company of fellow human beings who are such an inspiration, that you feel rejuvenated and proud to be one. Meeting Renu Bali, Kakoli Mukhejee and Katy Fitzgerald, has been one such encounter. Unfortunately meeting their wards, the eight participants of the Special Olympics Asia-Pacific’s Team India from Tender Hearts School, was not possible as they were flown straight to Newcastle and back. Tender Heart School is in Bhatola, Haryana, a small village situated 10kms from Faridabad, near Delhi. That these children have overcome their disability and participated in these Games with such success, is something you would like to shout from the rooftops to anyone who cares to listen!

It has been an immense effort on the part of these three women to bring eight children to Australia. Katy, an Australian with a passion for photography and for India, sold her pictures taken in India to raise funds for the travel of these children to the Special Olympics, held at Newcastle from 1 to 7 December (Her inspiring story was featured in the July 1, 2013 edition of Indian Link). At the opening ceremony, an enthusiastic crowd greeted the smallest teams of athletes from Cambodia and Mongolia, with as much noise as the 398 athletes in the Australian team. Governor-General Quentin Bryce, welcomed 2500 athletes from more than 32 countries.

Tender Heart is a non-government, not-for-profit organisation started 15 years ago, with the aim of providing social and educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. It provides education to ‘normal’ children from around Bhatola, those with physical and mental disabilities who need special education, and works on women empowerment. 200 children and 50 special needs students study and play together in this inclusive school. “With the special needs children, the emphasis is not only on providing an education, but also to make these often rejected people a part and parcel of society,” says Renu Bali, founder of the Tender Hearts School. “I observed a tendency of these children to feel rejected and depressed, and consequently uninclined to participate in any activity. This resulted in low self-esteem and obesity,” explains Renu. Also observing that given the opportunity, these kids were happy when playing games, Renu wrote to the Special Olympics Bharat committee and got the children started on a games training program organised by them. The first camp at Jammu attended by these children who had never left home, was a big challenge. Most of them hardly spoke, but Renu says on the second day, she received a call saying that a child wished to speak to her. “Yahan ka paneer bahut acchha hai,” (the water from here is really good) said the child. Renu was stunned to hear this from a child who apparently had no logical thinking, and hardly spoke before. She realised that the travel and participation in games had made this big difference. “After this, I stepped up participation in training camps. These were often held inter-state and I had a tough time convincing parents of children to let them go, but my efforts paid off,” claims Renu. “Each time they came back with new words in their vocabulary and started doing very well at district, state and then national level games,” she adds. Two and a half years later and the doors to international level competition were opened to them, so here they were now – in Australia!

There couldn’t have been a prouder set of people than Renu, Katy and Kakoli (a special educator at Tender Heart School), when the final medal tally was announced. They had no sponsors initially but kept up with the practice for participants, egged on with a strong determination to make it happen for this special contingent. Amongst themselves, the eight participants won 14 medals! Team Bharat made up of 381 participants, won 387 medals in all. A tremendous achievement considering that able-bodied sportsmen at normal Olympics struggle to win a single medal for India!

Renu wishes to make the efforts of these participants known to the whole of India. “They need to get a hero’s welcome,” says Renu. It is a pity that such adulation is reserved for cricketers and Bollywood stars only, she rues. “My aim is to make these children stand on their feet and sustain themselves. I am advocating hard for these participants to get cash awards like other Olympic medal winners. This could provide some support, as well as encouragement,” she avers. Speaking of hardships, Renu tells the story of when the school had an opportunity to send a student for the shot putt activity. The problem was, they did not have one. So she asked the child to start by throwing stones, found in abundance around the school. At first he wasn’t happy doing this. “Kyon mujhse patthar phekwate ho, (‘Why are you making me throw stones?’) he complained, but this practice stood him in good stead and he was ecstatic when he won at shot putt at the state level, and received a Rs.15,000 cash prize!

One of the participants was Bhupender, and his forte is athletics. Though on the IQ scale, his ability may be only 55, on the running scale, he beat able-bodied people to win the gold medal at the Delhi Marathon. ‘Don’t DISmyABILITY’ is what these achievements cry out.

Not all students from Tender Heart School are ‘children’. The oldest and sole female participant is Aarti who is 32. Participation in each of the sports category is based on ability. Piyush who won the 100m, only wanted to play cricket but Renu’s gentle coaxing worked. “Naye joothe doge to main bhagoonga,” (‘I will run only if you buy me new shoes’) said Piyush, and Renu was more than willing to oblige him with a pair! Other athletes were Deepak, Uttkarsh, Vishesh, Vikram and Keshav, the youngest at 8.

Renu has a bank of ‘success stories’ about these children, and this is what drives her to aim higher. Given the opportunity, these special children can achieve anything. Vikram dropped out of school in Year 7 as his wheelchair was hard to navigate on muddy roads when it rained. He asked Renu if he could learn a vocation. The girls at the school made soft toys and he started with drafting and cutting templates, which the girls then stitched. During the course Vikram said he wanted to study again, and so Renu got him a better wheelchair from Red Cross. Vikram has completed his graduation this year in spite of many hurdles.  Now international volunteers at Tender Heart are training him in computers as he has been promised in a job at Convergys, an IT company, if he is able to upskill in MS Excel.

“We need partners on this hard journey. Our projects should be able to sustain themselves, and only then can they be successful,” says Renu.

Indians in Australia can help these children and many others in their situation by becoming a volunteer at the School, buying products made by them or donating to the Tender Heart Foundation (www.tenderheartngo.org). “There have been many volunteers from Australia and with their help we are trying to upskill our teachers to use better training methods for special needs students. I realise we have a long way to go,” says Renu. “When I saw Australian children speak on the mike before huge crowds at the Special Olympics opening ceremony, all I thought was that I want to make my children do that!” We can all try to make this happen and we don’t have to dig deep into our pockets. As Kakoli put it, “A dollar a day is more than enough to bring up a single child in India”.

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Jyoti Shankar is a freelance writer and sustainability professional, who is passionate about nature
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