Saturday, December 4, 2010

Special Needs

Long before we decided to pack up and do the Jupiter’s Travels thing, Ann had set her heart on doing some volunteer work. Not one of those pay-as-you-go, pseudo two week holidays in Africa, cleaning up cuddly lion cub poo things. Real volunteer work.

She had no idea what that work would be, but figured there must be someone out there who could use her help.

We both assumed this would happen in some remote or poverty-stricken part of the world, so it came as a bit of a surprise when the opportunity presented itself in Malaysia. Sitting with Thobrani in his house in Sungai Petani one morning, Ann casually mentioned the volunteering thing to him over a cup of coffee. Almost immediately he was on the phone to Dr Joe, a local GP who runs a clinic in town, and who screens children with intellectual disabilities for admission into a special school. Upon hanging up, he said to Ann “You’ve got an appointment to see Dr Joe Sunday morning at his surgery. He’s going to interview you.” We both sat there open-mouthed for a moment. “Fantastic! Thank you.” said Ann.

Just to give you a bit of history, many years ago a good friend of Thobrani’s stopped at a stall by the side of the road on his way home to buy some food. Upon approaching the stall he was stunned to see a child, caged like a captive monkey, sitting by the roadside. When he asked the stall-keeper for an explanation, the man said that the cage was for the child’s safety, as otherwise he would simply run out into the traffic.

He explained that because his son was intellectually disabled, it was the only way he and his wife could keep an eye on him and continue to run the stall at the same time.

Thobrani’s friend was obviously affected by this and was determined to do something about it, so he called and told him the story as soon as he got home.

Thobrani was and is CEO and majority shareholder of a successful property development company, so he used his influence to persuade the other directors of the company to donate some land for a new school. We’re not sure if there was any government assistance at this stage, but we believe the directors all helped pay for the school’s construction as well. And just to be clear, we’re not talking about some sort of corporate sponsorship deal here. Between them, these guys all own the company. The money came from their pockets.

While the new school was being constructed, it was established at the house next door to Thobrani’s family home (the house we’re living in now).

Thobrani is too modest to tell us exactly how much he’s donated to the school over the years, but we know he paid their rent, and we know he continues to write very large cheques.

Both of us went to meet Dr Joe that Sunday morning, and presumably satisfied that Ann wasn’t some sort of coke-snorting vampire, gave us directions to the school.

At which, after spending some time with Major Chandra, the retired ex-army administrator who runs the school, Ann agreed that she’d start work Tuesday morning. Whew!

After being warned by the major that she’d struggle with the language barrier, she found instead that the teachers were all extremely welcoming and that they all speak at least some English.

Many of the children do too, however Ann’s limited Malay came in handy in maths class anyway. Satu, dua, tiga... She enjoyed it so much she decided to return on Thursday, and has been going back three days a week ever since.

The school accepts children between the ages of five and twenty-three. However many of them only arrive after spending several unsuccessful years attending “normal" schools, finally being turned away when their learning or behavioural problems become too difficult to deal with.

Their disabilities cover a broad range from mild to profound, and include Down’s kids, autistic kids, and kids who are just a little slower than average learners.

They are placed in classes according to their learning abilities rather than their age, and the lessons are tailored to suit.

These include the three Rs (with a little colouring-in thrown in for good measure), but also focus on social or domestic skills such as household duties, and each day there is a cleaning roster. Some of the kids will be placed in unskilled jobs after they graduate, but the majority won’t, so the school focuses instead on equipping them with the skills needed to cope with everyday life.

Ann is constantly amazed how well behaved they are. Full of big genuine smiles, when she arrives on the bike in the morning one of them will always run up and open the gate so she can park inside.

“Are you coming to my class today Miss?”

They all love music, especially Indi Pop, and some are fantastic dancers, completely lacking inhibitions.

Here’s Aleif hamming it up for the camera.

The teachers are a happy bunch also, and although not quite so well-behaved, make a huge effort to provide the kids with a warm, caring environment. Some of the children don’t have an ideal home life, so they try their best to leave their own problems at home, and arrive every day focused solely on the kids.

They may not have the same level of qualifications as a government school teacher (they’re certainly not paid anywhere near as much), but they’ve all had specific training targeting special needs children. Apart from which, they’re much more than just teachers, often performing the role of mother when the inevitable accidents occur.

From a total of nine teachers and one cook, only the salaries of four are paid by the government. The funding for the rest comes from people like Thobrani. A light breakfast and lunch are provided for the children, and each day parents donate parcels of food to help support this. Indeed without the support of the community the school would not survive, and it’s a damning indictment on the local government, who seems to view these children as unimportant.

Obviously most of them will never become productive members of society, but that’s hardly their fault, and so we struggle to understand why they and their parents do not receive the same levels of government support as the rest of the population. Having to rely instead on the generous contributions of people like Thobrani for such basic requirements as schooling.

On a purely selfish note however, Ann would never have had the opportunity to volunteer at a “normal” school, so on one level she is truly grateful.

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