I have been fortunate enough to visit Nepal twice. The first, in 2002, was when I came across the work of The American Himalayan Foundation and through them started sponsoring the Navjyoti Center for Mentally Disabled Children – the first center established in Kathmandu specifically for special needs children.
After a decade of supporting Navjyoti and being kept up to date through reports from AHF, drawings from the children and letters from the staff, I returned to Nepal in December last year and paid a personal visit to the center. I hoped seeing it would help me better understand the work being done there and I wanted to hear the stories of the teachers and students firsthand. Also, selfishly, I wanted to see how I could use this experience to ensure I maintained perspective in my day to day life after I returned from Nepal.
What first surprised me about the school was the overwhelming sense of care, friendship and love that came from the children, the teachers and the parents. Whilst I knew from the letters and the updates I received how well cared for the children were, nothing prepared me for the sense of community I discovered the minute I set foot on the school grounds.
All of the 70 children at Navjyoti suffer from physical and intellectual disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy and Downs Syndrome. There is also one category, “category 4” where children who can not be diagnosed are grouped.
The main aim of the school is to provide services to ensure the children and their families are supported in the child’s quest for personal independence through education and play. Nepalese families generally have neither the information nor the resources to care for a disabled child and the center works hard to fill these gaps. During my visit I began to truly appreciate the financial hardship faced by many of the families and the more than 20 per cent of the children who live in an orphanage and travel to Navjoti every day.
The principal of the center is Sister Suma, a 60 year old Catholic nun from India and a member of the Order of the Sisters of Nazareth. She told me the authorities in Nepal estimate that 10 percent of all children in the country are actually living with some form of disability and explained some of the cultural issues that families and disabled kids have to deal with – many are hidden from their communities due to the shame, fear and embarrassment.
The children are divided into classes depending on their abilities and I spent the day playing games, watching them practice their reading and writing and joined in a music and dance class. I was also lucky enough to help with some of the girls in their bead making which I loved. The school encourages other vocations skills such as candle making and home-made greeting card and envelop production to give the children a way to contribute to their families and increase their self-confidence.
I was deeply distressed by the stories of neglect and abuse that some of the children suffered before being part of this community, yet humbled by their need to be loved, their sense of fun and so much laughter. Probably the simple needs of all of us when we get right down to it.
When the kids all got on the bus at the end of the day and I waved goodbye – I couldn’t help but feel they had more to teach me in one day, that I could teach them in a lifetime.
By Kieran Moore.