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Students at Gharkul are taught everything from English and mathematics to painting and crafts.

Oct 10 2015 : Mirror (Mumbai)

Their only alternative

Ankita Bhatkhande TWEETS @ankitab_MIRROR

Often abandoned by their families, many children with special needs have found hope in Sunil Satpute

At a three-room set up in Prabhat Colony Municipal School in Santacruz east, Sunil Satpute runs Gharkul (or, `home'), where he educates children with autism, Down's syndrome, learning difficulties and other special needs, who are often neglected by their families. The 45-year-old, who also teaches several poor students, has been involved in similar educational activities since 1998.

Born into a poor family, Satpute grew up in the slums of Sion Koliwada with his alcoholic father and mother who worked as a domestic help. Realising the power of education early on, he taught students from his locality to keep them away from antisocial activities. “Where we lived, bread and butter were more important than anything else.Most kids resorted to wrong means to earn an extra buck. I brought them all together and started teaching them,“ says Satpute. However, he realised that several others with special needs could not cope up with their studies. “Most of them dropped out of schools. For most parents, they were a burden as they had to spend on their treatment and had to be with them all the time.Several of them were abandoned by their families,“ he adds.Satpute wanted to start an organisation to provide special education to such children.

He started working for Baljeevan trust, an NGO that rescues street kids, while simultaneously hunting for a place for his organisation. After a month long search, he zeroed in on a municipal school in Vile Parle. Around 30 children from nearby localities started coming to the school and he appointed two special educators and a caretaker to look after them. But authorities asked them to vacate the premise, explaining that the building is to undergo redevelopment. They were promised a place in Kurla, which meant a loss of students because of the longer distance.

After months of searching for an alternate space and submitting proposals to several authorities, he was allotted a few rooms at the Prabhat Colony Municipal School in Santacruz. They managed to get several students from nearby localities. As the students attend school from 10.30 am to 4.30 pm, their parents are free to work during those hours. They, however, do not have to pay a penny for their child's education. “Our goal was to create a curriculum that was alternate yet not too different from the mainstream one. Every special child has some capacities, just like he has several weaknesses. If someone can paint, we train them in painting, but if a child is coping with reading and writing, we ensure that he is taught just like any other school-going child of his age.“ Unlike other schools, there are no exams. “Each special educator monitors the performance of a child depending on his her disability,“ he adds.

Students are taught everything from English to mathematics along with several vocational skills like painting, crafts, quilling and so on by four special educators who are paid meagre salaries sponsored by donations. “We don't have a big fund. All our donors are middle-class servicemen who chip in either with money or with physical help.“

Satpute still juggles his day job at a city-based NGO and his work at Gharkul and this means working for more than 12 hours on some days. The biggest challenge is tackling parents' apathetic attitude towards these students, he says. “Once they send them to school, they do not even come to ask about the child's performance.They often make inquiries about full-time shelter homes so that the child does not come home at all,“ says Satpute.

He now plans to start a residential shelter for the children, so that they can be monitored around the clock. Although the organisation still struggles to find funds, Sunil remains optimistic.“The moment I enter the school, these smiling faces come running towards me and talk to me in their own language -some say a `hi' while the others just stare. What can be more fulfilling?“ he smiles.

MUMBAIheroes - Sunil Satpute: Their only alternative


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