Two mothers of kids with special needs, Reshmy Nikith and Gauri, started a school for differently abled kids when mainstream playschools refused the former’s son an admission. With the help of good Samaritans, the low-profile school battled space and funding issues to undergo its first major expansion over the summer holidays this year. On June 15, the school will welcome students with iPads, smart boards, music and dance therapy classes and sports activities
We catch Reshmy Nikith during what is perhaps the busiest time of the year in her calendar. It is a week before the beginning of the new academic year. “I don’t know whether my two kids are excited about returning to school, but I certainly am,” she laughs. Her friend Gauri is not able to join us — she is held up at a college, in connection with a short-term course her son hopes to take. “Today is a wonderful day,” says Gauri, when we finally catch up.
Co-founder of Little Hearts Learning Center, Reshmy Nikith with her son, Neel. Pic/Satyajit Desai
Reshmy and Gauri are parents of kids with special needs but that’s not what sets them apart from the average parent. They are also the founders of the little-known Chembur-based school for kids with special needs, Little Hearts Learning Center. And this academic year is doubly special to the duo as, over the holidays, the school underwent its first, major expansion. When the school reopens on June 15, it will offer a host of new services such as music and dance therapy, sports (as a subject), physical activities such as skating and cycling and modern learning tools such as iPads and smart boards, among others. “We have seen children learn faster with technology,” says Reshmy.
Reshmy Nikith at her house in Chembur. Pic/Satyajit Desai
Against the tide
At the age of two-and-a-half months, Reshmy’s son Neel contracted meningitis. “The doctors told me that his milestones will be delayed. So we were prepared for it,” she remembers. But what she wasn’t prepared for was the absolute lack of support from playschools, when it was time to enroll Neel in school. “When I went for interviews, they gave lame reasons such as the kids will not be comfortable with each other. That really upset me. If we expose small children to such schools early on, they learn a lot of things. They learn to verbalise and develop social skills much faster. But the schools didn’t want to take the initiative, although their guidelines state that they should admit kids with special needs.”
Four schools in Chembur refused to admit Neel. “I didn’t sleep that night. Finally, at 4 am the next morning, I decided to start a school. I wanted to provide the right environment for my son. I went and spoke to my father- in-law about it. He immediately supported me by providing me with the premises by converting a garage cum shop,” remembers Reshmy, who has done a course in pre-primary education. She discussed the idea with Gauri, who is a special education teacher, and the two opened the school in June 2009.
Students from the centre during a field trip
The aim was to open a holistic centre where kids and their parents could spend time together. “At that time, parents had to travel to multiple centres for therapies. That was very difficult and hardly any centres in Chembur offered multiple services under one roof then,” elaborates Reshmy.
Gauri explains that they have, so far, managed to integrate nine kids into mainstream schools. “We have also tied up with Aditya Vidya Mandir school, Chembur, where our kids participate in their social events such as Diwali functions,” adds Gauri.
Major hiccups involve the lack of space and funding issues. “Initially, we didn’t have funds to hire teachers, and parents even volunteered to teach. We have never advertised and news about our school spread via word of mouth. We didn’t want to charge the parents an exorbitant fee, because as mothers of children with special needs, we knew how expensive therapies can get. But luckily, we were supported by others.
A friend who ran a playschool, for instance, offered her place and she didn’t charge us anything for it,” says Reshmy. Such goodwill has also made it possible for the school to own a LCD TV and computers. “Lots of people helped us out with our expansion project financially, and we are grateful for it,” adds Reshmy. She also points out that if mainstream schools accepted the children, there would be no need for special needs schools. “A couple of my students’ parents had to withdraw them from mainstream schools as they got lost in a class of 60 students. They need individual attention,” she points out.
The duo’s future plans include converting the centre into a residential school run by parents, where children are given vocational training. “That is my goal,” says Reshmy, while Gauri says they hope to change the name of the centre to ‘academy’. “I involve my son in various activities, like being involved in kitchen work and lighting the matchstick to light an incense stick. The future looks scary to parents of kids with special needs but although my son may not be completely independent, he should be able to look after his needs at least partially,” concludes Reshmy.