Of creative empowerment

Malati Hegde, Feb 12 2018, 18:55 IST

A group of youngsters between 16 and 30 years are sitting in neat rows and making a variety of paper bags. Some women are making files using banana fibre, while the sound of sewing machines is heard continuously from a corner. Small talk and an occasional outburst of laughter in an otherwise silent atmosphere seem to break the monotony of work. This is what a normal day at Chetana Occupational and Rehabilitation Centre, on the outskirts of Sirsi, looks like.

Chetana Trust was founded by Dr Mala Giridhar, a psychiatrist, in 2008, in collaboration with her husband, Dr Giridhar, and other like-minded people. The main objective of the trust was to help build a life of dignity for youngsters with special needs. After reviewing multiple options, the trustees decided that making handicrafts from eco-friendly materials like banana fibre and paper would be a productive endeavour. "Society considers people with special needs as incompetent. But we see them as distinct individuals and try to understand their strengths," says Mala.

The beginnings

Once the plan was ready, the volunteers at Chetana surveyed some colonies in Sirsi town to identify individuals with special needs. Their parents did not have a proper understanding of the situation and were in a dilemma about the future course of action for their children. They were delighted when Chetana offered an opportunity. After proper evaluation, 30 youngsters were enrolled in the centre. Currently, all of them are undergoing training and rehabilitation. While some are mentally challenged, others are physically challenged.

Initially, many trainees were hesitant and were not interested in learning new skills; but some were keen learners and began making paper covers soon. Expert counselling, compassion and a pleasant atmosphere improved the behaviour of those who had communication problems. Gradually, they became enthusiastic about taking part in the training sessions.

Every morning, the trainees are picked up from home in a trust vehicle. The trainers, about seven of them, take over from here. They identify the interests and abilities of each trainee and work with them accordingly. The morning session is from 10.30 am to 1 pm. Post lunch, they take a nap and resume work. They also participate in group activities and leave the centre by 5 pm.

While the trainees mostly make paper bags, the trainers make utility and decorative items like files, pens, pen stands, boxes, lamps, bags and purses, from banana fibre. "None of us had prior exposure to such activities. We were managing household work before joining here," say trainers Vidya, Suma, Lalita, Spoorthy and Usha.

The team makes proper use of banana fibre, which is easily available in the region. A good demand for their commodities has encouraged these women to work harder and manufacture more. In 2009, Chetana won the TechnoServe business plan competition in southern India for creating economic opportunities for the disabled.

A growth-oriented space

"The basic idea is to create a happy and meaningful space for these individuals and thus, bring them peace of mind. Chetana has evolved into such a space where they work without any pressure. They get good food here and all efforts are made to help them lead a respectable life," says Saraswati Bhat, manager at Chetana. The trainees at the centre get a stipend of Rs 1,000 every month. Their parents have observed positive changes in them, both physically and mentally, after joining Chetana. "With better exposure, our children feel free to move with people," say the parents.

The trustees acknowledge the support extended by donors and other like-minded people. And, those associated with the centre feel that there is a need for more such efforts and are willing to guide and support people interested in conducting similar activities elsewhere. In fact, many have already approached them for advice and training.

"Three years ago, the trainees expressed their desire to go on a tour. Though we were apprehensive about managing them, we decided to fulfil their wish. They were very happy and enjoyed being with nature. Not just that, they were so well-behaved and cooperative throughout that we started travelling outside twice a year," says Mala.

It is also heartening to see them motivating each other to make paper bags. "We have trained them in some activities, in turn, they have taught us valuable lessons. I have not seen them fighting with each other. They are all good friends," says Mala proudly. One can contact Mala Giridhar on 9986143666 or email chetanaproducts@gmail.com.

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