Prerana Special School fights for mentally challenged kids in rural Maharashtra by battling stigma and teaching them the art of living

The school has not received a single grant from the government in years but has changed lives after Father Bijesh and Seenu Philip decided to fight an ugly battle in Kalmeshwar, with kindness 
Younger students of the school are taught how to make cards, gardening, given toilet training and candle making
Younger students of the school are taught how to make cards, gardening, given toilet training and candle making

What would you do if you find yourself in a remote rural area with little manpower, rampant illiteracy and many children with special needs? When Father Bijesh Philip, a Priest of the Indian Orthodox Church, and his wife Seenu moved to the desolate, rural tehsil called Kalmeshwar, 25 km from Nagpur, they dedicated themselves to a larger calling.

The couple, whose elder son, Abhishek, had been diagnosed with mental retardation at infancy, were driven to eradicate the stigma that special children, often referred to as ‘madhimand bacche or mad children, and their families suffer.

Many parents would earlier refuse to send their children to special schools in fear of being associated with the ‘mentally challenged’ tag. We then educated them and taught them to turn that thought

Fr Bijesh Philip, Co-founder, Prerana School

While Nagpur, like other major Tier II cities, boasts of good training institutes, children with special needs are completely neglected in the rural pockets. "When we first moved here we were shocked to find many children with mental retardation in villages around the St Thomas Orthodox Theological Seminary (STOTS), who could not avail benefits owing to poverty, lack of awareness and training," says Fr Bijesh Philip.

The right path: If the students come from other areas or the city, the faculty assess what jobs would suit them and what would help them when they return home after turning 18 (Students with  an Malankara Orthodox Bishop)

What further deepened their urge to reform the system was when they discovered such children were often locked away and isolated at home by their families in fear of being ostracised. But Prerana Special School, slowly and gradually, succeeded in bringing in a new environment of compassion and understanding.

The Motto of the school is that persons with disabilities are not merely the objects of our charity but are the subject of our transformation also. They are not just receiving our charity, but are really communicating with us. We need to learn from them. Our ultimate aim is to empower them and help them to help themselves

The school has, since its inception, become a beacon of hope for children emerging from poverty-stricken, illiterate backgrounds living in fear of being branded mad or worse, bullied and possibly disconnected from their village societies.

This fear, often unknown to the urban class, is a make-or-break deal in villages where stigma and stereotypes are at the forefront and education is forced to take a backseat. Fr Bijesh, with the help of the Malankara Orthodox Church and the nearby seminary, worked on starting a school that began in a rented room with one teacher and six students. Two years later, through funds and donations, the school managed to relocate closer to the seminary where it grew in size and strength.

However, the school faced its own problems in the form of few teachers and lack of funds. It was very difficult to get teachers, says Fr Bijesh, who recalls that his wife Seenu played a huge role in shaping and moulding the school and even today, takes classes for teachers as a visiting guest.

A few select senior students are also trained in pre-vocational activities like candle making, gardening, envelope and card making. According to the government, vocational activities should only be given to children aged above 18

A hostel was also included when they realised that these required both parents to work during the day. With a dearth of facilities for special kids in rural pockets, a working parent often has to give up their job and dedicate themselves wholly to the child. This could mean days of starvation and extreme difficulty when one of the two breadwinners chooses family over fortune.

But did they face challenges to get students? “Many parents refused to send their children to special schools in fear of being associated with the ‘mentally challenged’ tag. We then educated them and taught them to turn that thought,” says Fr Bijesh. As the school slowly blossomed and the stigma dissipated, it saw an influx of children from other remote areas. And though a child with special needs can never completely be self-sufficient, Prerana teaches them to be as self-dependent and equipped as possible. These kids, who once never even hoped or knew the freedom of education, love and warmth, can today grasp basic language, etiquette, how to manage simple accounts, purchase items from a shop, travel by bus and cross roads.

And this is taught to them by the teachers here, who come equipped with training in special education and a BEd degree. They are further trained and guided by resource persons who frequent the school. “Some of the 19 teachers have been with Prerana for over a decade, and despite coming from poverty and having faced many difficulties, they have dedicated themselves selflessly to the cause,” says Fr Bijesh, who adds that they are also trained in empathy and understanding.

The school has recently decided to give two sheep to each student, so that they can sell them and earn some money. They are also thinking of providing them with hens/chickens

"We train the teachers, hostel warden and staff not to hit the students. There are times when the students may get naughty or noisy which may tempt teachers to physically restrain them," says the priest, whose fatherly concern for the students is evident when he walks among them with a kind smile.

Better lives: The students are exposed to visitors and have a group of four German volunteers visit the school and interact with and teach the children twice every year.

Psychologists visit Prerana to assess the students during admissions, as well as once a year to assess their overall development. Students are also assessed to decipher what jobs will be suitable for them in the village or city where they come from and are taught suitable skills. Volunteers, often from other cities and students from Germany frequently visit and return home with bigger hearts and an open, sensitised mind. One would, however, expect that a school involved in such path-breaking work must surely receive funds from the government. Surprisingly, the answer is in the negative.

Fr Bijesh, despite having applied for State Government grants years ago, has received none. Every year a government official visits the school, lauds them for their good work and hands them a certificate, but they received not a grant in the last 6 to 7 years. They live almost completely on the goodwill they have earned and through visitors and groups. But those hardships seem worth the cause, as students who leave the school at the age of 18 become more disciplined, develop better communication skills, self-control and basic etiquette.

The school also receives appreciation from parents, who initially refused to admit their children. Soly Prashanth Ahirkar, who is one of Prerana’s first teachers, reveals how these children are often perceived as being mentally challenged or just plain ‘mad’ by the villagers, who know little about their needs. She opens up about one such case and his transformation post-Prerana.

Dinesh Pant studied in a normal school in the village, but got into trouble when his family was told that he bunked classes and was ‘different’. His mother was a single-parent living in a joint family, but the family denied his condition when approached by the Prerana team. But they were eventually able to convince them to let him study in Prerana for a year.

Dinesh was assessed by the team and was found to have mild retardation, which in layman terms signifies someone who lags behind in education, but can complete other normal activities. In Prerana, Dinesh was taught from the normal syllabus, but was given individual attention.

Soon, he had become more disciplined and had, she proudly states, “better handwriting than normal children.” Today, Dinesh earns a paltry income by working on a farm. The school has thus, through its impactful and humanitarian work, been the shepherd to many special children and their families, who with time, understanding and education have followed the light leading to greener pastures.

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