Sangeetha Chakrapani is a woman of great strength and determination. She is a classic example of a How person – people who rise above their problems and look for ways to make any situation better. She has not only established a way to help her children but is lending a helping hand to many others with her wonderful initiative – Together. Its an honour to interview her. Let’s get started right away then..
Q) What inspired you to start Together Sangeetha. Tell us about the initial days of your initiative and how it developed along the way.
As a parent, I began working on this project 7 years ago when I realized that 1. My two daughters with autism are not academically inclined, 2. they needed help developing functional independence in their daily lives, communicate better with people around them, 3. I needed to identify and develop their skill base to create work opportunities for them, 4. They are happy people with autism and therefore I too need to remove the cloak of anxiety and regret and concentrate on helping them where they needed help most.
I worked on this project by visiting several residential centres for people with autism..the clouds lifted and I could clearly see what I needed to teach them. I met with several professionals in this field and took their opinion on what I wanted to do.
I was clear that I wanted to found a happy, vibrant environment where we accept people as they are, work on improving their communication skills, life skills, work skills and prepare them for life after the lifetime of their parents.
In the beginning, there were very few takers for this programme because it did not focus on academics. While I believe that academics is important, it is more important to understand the child’s academic potential, understand what goals we are working towards and understand what the child’s actual needs are. Today, we are a bunch of 15 youngsters working hard to secure our future.
Q) You have started a bakery run by young people with special needs, please tell us more about that .
The bakery is an exciting project that lends itself to all our students, irrespective of their skill sets. We have students who bake, train under the chef and learn to make different kinds of products. We have students who work in bakery support. Some in bakery support count and pack products. Others who need help counting pack products that are already counted and laid out. One set of students wrap the products individually. Another lot make the boxes and stick the labels. The shop management students sell the products made in the bakery.
The bakery is a place that has high energy levels and a demanding work structure. We are FSSAI certified and therefore we spend a lot of time teaching hygiene protocol to our students.
We have teaching days and manufacturing days to ensure students get the best of both environments.
Q) What items are for sale in the bakery?
All our products are vegetarian and eggless. We introduce a new product every couple of months.
Q) A few details about one or two kids working there and how it has helped them?
Krish Yajnik when he joined us was very particular about his food. He would never consider sharing or making for someone apart from himself. Today, he is cheerful while cooking/baking and serves customers independently.
Jayanthi, 13 years old has always been prompt dependent i.e. she needs somebody telling her each and every step. We started with getting her to place laddoos after preparation into a large container, wearing gloves. We wanted to get her used to handling edible products with a glove. After a month, we started teaching her to pack and seal the products for the customer.
Krishna Khandelwal, 23 years old, was very low in confidence when he joined us. He began with doing job work i.e. labelling products. We gently introduced him to the bakery and gave him a slow paced programme to win his trust. Today, Krishna works independently in the bakery.
Q) That’s wonderful! Would you like to share more details about your novel program – Friendship without touching..
Together as a centre does not have a formal teacher student environment. We consider ourselves as partners, co-workers to our students. We have a flexible schedule, we encourage students to ask for a break anytime they need it but we are very particular about code of conduct. We not treat them as babies, cuddle them etc. For example, my 14 year old regular son would not show his affection physically. Having said that, youngsters with autism have sensory needs and that needs to be kept in mind while modifying their behavior. Many young people with autism do not know what kind of touch is socially appropriate. We guide them through a variety of programmes about appropriate ways of seeking / expressing affection.
Q) Tell us about the various programs available at Together
Together Foundation is a not for profit organisation and a public charitable trust. We run a training centre that works with young people with autism and other intellectual disabilities.
We run a bakery that is FSSAI certified, paper plate manufacturing unit, paper bag design unit and have launched the first shop that trains and employs people with intellectual disabilities. We are a team of 4 special educators and two support staff, assisted by dedicated parents and volunteers. We work with 15 students. Our teaching programme is based on getting students ready for independent living, after the lifetime of parents. Towards that end, the teaching programme is divided into building skills in six areas: language and communication, kitchen management, personal hygiene, leisure activities, computer skills and vocational training.
Our work timings on weekdays are 9.00 am to 4.30 pm. Students train individually as well as in groups and we also have a buddy system to encourage interpersonal skills. We work on weekends too (Saturdays and Sundays) only for the vocational training centre and bakery.
Q) A glimpse of the a typical for the young adults attending Together ..
Our day begins at 9.30 and ends at 4 pm. Some students come in for half day only.
Students on the life skill programme start with a language and communication programme, kitchen chores such as cleaning, washing etc, preparation of simple snacks, personal hygiene which includes scrubbing the washroom with Harpic, leisure activities on the computer, warming and serving their own food, a component of vocational training
Students in vocational training also work on language and communication, stocking and arranging the shop, baking in the kitchen, packaging, paper plate making, data entry, inventory management. They also train in a project called Social Group that teaches them to make basic conversation. The shop management programme is vast and seeks to empower the students at different levels right from maintaining cleanliness to customer relations. Students also participate in sales and exhibitions.
Q) A few success stories about the young adults benefiting from your noble initiative .
Q) Inspiring! Would you like to share your future plans reg. Together with us..
Together is a not-for-profit organisation that works with young people with autism and other intellectual impairments. We train them to navigate their lives through the simple things we take for granted – self help, personal hygiene, food preparation, work meaningfully, leisure time and communication.
Even with autism there is a happy and dignified life to look forward to. That’s the mission at together.
Future plans :
1. Make the programme more accessible, more affordable, have sound funding in place
2. Make the shop self-sustaining so that students become employees and earn rightfully and reasonably well
3. Group Home project- identify/create lifetime care facilities
To contact us:
Shop No. 12,13,14
Poonam Kirti CHS
Mumbai – 400093
email – firstname.lastname@example.org
ph. 022-28399173, 9930358173
Q) Your suggestions for Autism parents and others in the community ..
Suggestions for the autism community
Seek lots of help/counselling if required when a child gets diagnosed. It is not at all easy to accept and begin work on the child. Forum for Autism is a good place to get started. Don’t hesitate to knock and ask for help.
With time, every child with autism starts moving ahead, discovering and understanding the world and forging a path ahead
Always keep in touch with ground realities with your child: taking care of one’s physical needs, communicating basic requirements, communicating emotions, behavior regulation have to come first always.
Safety: Always check, double check the environment in which your child is living/studying/working. Make sure staff is trained, responsible people are present and good security systems in place.
Academics..to study is the right of every child. Do take it as much further as you can but always be working on developing functional independence and building skills side by side.
As parents, we also have the right to retire. We cannot be on the run all our lives. It is important to make our children as independent as possible and understand their lifetime care requirements. Autism is a lot of hard work and a lot of happiness and satisfaction too in helping one another live a more complete life.
Golden words from a wonderful soul who believes that every child/young person with Autism is capable of living a life with dignity and all they need is an understanding heart and helping hand. We need more people who think like you mam. May God bless your initiative and our best wishes are always with you.
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