Today I am privileged to feature an interview with Mr. Gopinath Ramakrishnan, who will share the journey of Mitr -Special needs cafe, where our kids prepare various snacks and serve them. A wonderful initiative. When I first read about Mitr cafe, I liked the idea a lot and hope I get to taste their amazing food some day.
They also run a therapy center that teaches life skills and conducts numerous workshops. Let’s get to know them better.
Q) Tell us about Mitr..
Mitr is a support center for making friends in the special needs world of children and adults at Chennai. Mitr is located in an independent house in a quiet residential area of Chennai called Kalakshetra Colony. Mitr is the brainchild of Vimal Balachander, who is a special needs parent herself. Vimal decided to start Mitr when she realized the need for a space for special needs families to interact. Mitr was inaugurated in October 2015.
It all started back in June 2012, when a few of us (my wife Mini Hari and I, along with another couple, Mala and Chinnappa) initiated a yoga program for special needs families. It started in a very simple way at our home. We found that, in addition to the yoga practice itself, the coming together of special needs families in a relaxed environment had a very positive impact on both the children and the parents. We also found that there were many parents of special needs children who were looking for such peer interaction and socializing opportunities. This eventually led to us forming a parent support group for special needs families called SCAN in mid-2015. SCAN stands for Special Child Assistance Network. Our group has children with various special needs – Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome, Intellectual Disability, Dyslexia, ADHD, etc.
The intent is to provide a platform to enable parents to exchange information and experiences – regarding therapies, schools, diets, and so on – as well as provide opportunities for social interaction. While SCAN is mostly a virtual group (Facebook and Telegram app), we have also organised a number of programs for the families to physically meet and interact – a couple of movie shows, a picnic to the Rail Museum, cooking workshops, a music concert, and so on. In addition, SCAN has held programs or participated in awareness building in the community – we had a Cerebral Palsy awareness campaign walk on the beach, participated in VaccesS, the Special Needs summit conducted by Vidya Sagar, and so on.
Mitr has become the physical manifestation of SCAN. At Mitr we organize workshops, parent meets, etc. We have Art Therapy, Pottery & Clay Modelling, Drums Class and Yoga classes, on a regular basis. We conduct a cafe called Mitr Café on most Sunday evenings. This is a social occasion for special needs families, where some of the children help prepare and serve food. We have some fun activities like traditional Indian games, music performances, story-telling, Zumba, etc. We also celebrate special occasions like Christmas, New Year, Children’s Day, and so on. And every year, on World Autism Day, we have an awareness program and commemorative event.
More recently, a vocational unit called Tarang has started operating at Mitr. This is a full-time vocational unit for young adults, started by Latha Venkatesan and Narayanan Ganapathy, who are parents of two of the trainees at Tarang.
Mitr is also the meeting place for another initiative of Vimal’s that is focused on adult issues – Support Alzheimer’s N Dementia (SAND).
We have also partnered with NGOs and social service organizations for various programs. We had an Inclusive Zumba session with Explore Differently, an organization that focuses on accessibility for the disabled. We have an upcoming event with Rotary Club of Chennai KK Nagar that will feature a blind girl, Jyothi, who is an accomplished singer and violinist.
Mitr is now a registered Trust. Vimal, her husband Bala and I are the Trustees.
Q) Would you like to tell us about the team behind Mitr..
As I mentioned, Mitr was founded by Vimal Balachander. Of course, there are many people who have supported in setting up and running the center. For Mitr Café, some of the special needs parents who have been involved on a regular basis, in addition to Vimal and myself, are Latha Venkatesan, Gayathri Sridhar, Ganapathy and Manjula Ganapathy, Sanjay and Navneeta Nahata, Mini Hari, Madhuca Krishnan, Jayanthi Anand, Meera Balaji, Zainambu, Vijaya Gomathi, Lavanya Kannan… and so many more.
Many friends of the special families also participate with gusto, bringing their children, helping make food, and interacting with all of us.
Special mention should be made of the siblings of some of the special needs children who actively take part in the café evenings, helping their siblings and other children.
Q) How did the idea to start a special needs cafe originate?
The idea for Mitr Café started with the intention of teaching some life skills to the children. There have been many sessions on simple everyday skills like understanding how to handle money, making a shopping list and going to a shop, making a purchase at the store, giving a large denomination note and getting change, etc. The team decided to start a café where the kids would help prepare and serve the food, prepare the bill, and collect the money.
Mitr Café initially opened for breakfast on Sunday mornings. After some time, it was felt that Sunday evenings were more convenient, and we have been operating Sunday evenings for more than a year now.
Mitr Café is also a space for special families to meet and relax, especially as acceptance in public spaces is still not as much as desired.
Q) Tell us how you help kids prepare the menu?
A lot of special needs kids like to help in everyday tasks around the home. It may be that the regularity of the routine gives them a sense of reassurance and continuity, or just that they see their mothers doing something and want to imitate them. Activities like cutting vegetables appeal to many of them. It also becomes an exercise to develop fine motor skills, and also perhaps fulfills some sensory needs. While it is mostly the moms who plan and prepare the menu, some of the children are actively involved in the decision process, as well as in the preparation.
We have one child, Aarya, who loves to mix bhelpuri! His mother says it’s not just the final product – he also helps prepare all the ingredients at home. Another boy, Madhav, decides which item they will bring for the café and helps to make it. He and his mom prepare pizza from scratch, right from baking the pizza base to making the tomato sauce! Another child, Anirudh, has a yen for making sweet lime juice – takes great pleasure in squeezing the sweet lime!
Q) What items are generally served at Mitr?
Mostly stuff that kids enjoy! We have some children who use their parents’ phone to check the menu (we post it on our group by Saturday) and persuade their parents to bring them to the café on Sunday evening! So we have items like pizza, sandwiches, bhelpuri, pani puri, vada, bajji, cutlets, French fries, brownies, chocolate cake, lemon juice…
We also try to bring in some healthy food habits – mostly the cake is made using multigrain atta or even millets; items like ragi dosa and millet upma have been well received and we totally avoid carbonated drinks.
Q) Are the kids working at Mitr involved in all aspects of running a cafe, like cashier, etc.?
We have tried to involve the children in all these aspects – honestly, we have succeeded only to varying degrees. In the early days, when there were fewer customers, it was easier to get the children to do everything. Nowadays we usually have 30-40 visitors every Sunday, and sometimes it gets overwhelming for the children – especially the billing and collection. Therefore, we usually get them involved in food preparation and in serving the food. Of course, they all help set-up the tables at the start and in cleaning and packing up at the end.
Q) How has the response been to your cafe?
In a word, AMAZING! For many special needs families Mitr has become the de-stress and chill zone on Sunday evenings. As I mentioned, some of the kids look forward to it so much that I get flak from them if we have to close for any reason (like inclement weather, as it’s an open-air venue)! I had a 14-year-old send me a message from his mother’s phone “Gopi uncle, why no Mitr today? It’s not raining now!” as soon as it stopped pouring!
For many parents Mitr becomes a place where they feel the children are safe and comfortable. I always say that it’s the other way around I find that when the parents are relaxed, the children sense it and relax too!
A very gratifying aspect of Mitr Café has been the acceptance amongst the neighbors and the local community. Many local residents drop by for a cup of tea and a snack while on their evening walk. We have had a group of pilgrims from another town, visiting a nearby temple, hesitantly walk in drawn by the music playing, and then stay to dance with all of us! All this helps us be inclusive – something that special needs families look for from society! Perhaps the most heartwarming incident was one evening when a passerby was wondering aloud what was going on – the watchman of the building across the street told him “These are ‘autism children’, they come here to play every Sunday – they are good kids”.
Q) Tell us about Tarang?
Tarang is a Self-help Group of differently-abled young adults, in the age group of 16-30 years, trained in Vocational Skills. It is an initiative by parents of the differently-abled to improve their self-esteem and confidence, create a platform for self-employment, and progress on the path to independent living in the years to come.
The young adults – called interns – are engaged in a wide range of activities – from cutting vegetables, preparing Atta and various food mixes, to weaving mats and towels, to making paper and jute bags. They can also make Thamboolam Bags, Navarathri gifts, gift envelopes and decorative diyas, and many more craft items.
Recreational programs like Yoga, Zumba and Physical Education / Sports are also part of the daily activities.
Tarang self-help group was started by two SCAN parents, Latha Venkatesan and Ganapathy Narayanan, and run with the support of others like Kamala, Preetha, and Priya Sasi. Tarang operates on a full-time basis – 10 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday.
Q) Does Mitr run a therapy center? A few details please..
Mitr does not run a therapy center in the conventional sense of Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, etc. What we do have are various types of activities that are therapeutic for special needs children. We have an art program from SCAN called A Brush With Art every Tuesday. We have Pottery & Clay Crafting sessions by Life & Art Academy on Saturdays, Drums class on Saturdays and Yoga on Mondays and Fridays.
Q) A few details regarding the different workshops conducted at Mitr
Over the past 2 years we have had many different workshops at Mitr – some by professionals and some by SCAN parents. We have a fairly regular program called Gyaan Budhwaar in which SCAN parents share their expertise and experience on any aspect of bringing up and nurturing special needs children. As part of this we have had sessions by parents on topics ranging from Bach Flower remedies to Reading Techniques to Home Schooling. We have also had workshops by professionals, on topics such as Sujok Accupressure and Reiki Therapy, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Behaviour Management and Financial Planning for Special Needs. We are constantly looking for workshops that our parent group would be interested in. We even had a dental check-up camp recently, as many special needs kids suffer from dental issues.
Q) What are your future plans for Mitr?
We would like to have more programs, with more SCAN parents and children attending. Vimal and her family have so kindly made the space available, so it would be good to utilize this to the maximum. We do have some time slots free, especially on weekday evenings, so would like to use them for some meaningful activities for our SCAN group. Maybe music therapy, physical fitness and so on…
We would also like to include special needs children from disadvantaged backgrounds in our activities. This year, on World Autism Day, we hosted 20 children from Bala Vihar, a home for special needs children. They were so happy to spend an evening with us, with food, art and music. It was a special evening for us, and made us realize that there is so much more we can do for such kids. Now that we are a Trust, we will be looking at raising funds for such activities.
We also need to look at expanding beyond a single center. Just in Chennai itself, the SCAN community is widespread and many of the families find it difficult to come to this location. So opening other centers in Chennai would be another focus area. And then of course going beyond Chennai to other cities!
Q) Your advice for Autism parents ..
All I can say is Believe in your Child and Yourself! Your child has far more awareness, ability and aptitude than you may perceive. Many people get caught up in the pressure to make the child conform, become “normal”. First, there is no “normal”! Each child is unique and has his/her own strengths and desires. The challenge may very often be in identifying and nurturing the strengths of the child. And the best people to do this are the parents. You know your child better, and nobody can help your child more than you. Have faith in your child and your own capabilities! Use external experts, professionals, therapists, schools, support groups, etc. – but do not leave it to them. You, and only you, can bring out the best in your child.
Mitr Trust is located at T-18/2, Coastal Road, Kalakshetra Colony, Besant Nagar, Chennai – 600090. To learn more about activities at Mitr please visit http://mitractivities.blogspot.in/
To learn more about Special Child Assistance Network (SCAN) please visit us at https://www.facebook.com/groups/898979993500450/
Vimal Balachander | firstname.lastname@example.org | +91 98409 31790
Gopinath Ramakrishnan | email@example.com | +91 99400 81465
Well guys, I hope you all visit this wonderful cafe when you visit Chennai. Amazing food prepared by our angels, company of like minded parents and a place where you and your child can relax, what more can you ask for!
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