Dubai special needs volunteer programme requires ‘commitment and empathy’


Mainstream school children gain understanding of special needs challenges.

[Left to right: Co-founders Neena Raina and Arti Khanzanchi in the library at Tender Hearts Arena in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National]
Students keen on volunteering at Tender Hearts Arena must commit to a minimum of 45 hours and are required to give a final presentation about what they learnt.

“We are looking for seriousness in participation because being with our students also teaches them about compassion. It’s not enough to be sympathetic, they also need empathy,” said Arti Khazanchi, the recreational centre’s co-founder.

“They learn to deal with these children. This is important because in the future they may share work space with these children. The best time to teach them is in school during the development and growing years. The whole objective is how do we get the world ready for these determined ones.”

The school has about 150 volunteers from different schools who have been involved with the centre for a year-and-a-half.

For many students, volunteering is a social service requirement for university admission, but Ms Khazanchi hopes to take it further.

“We want this to be embedded in the culture because if we teach regular students about true inclusion and train them, it’s only then that we will have real acceptance. Being with our children is not just different, it’s a learning experience,” she said.

During the programme, the students receive hands-on training and are taught the challenges faced by people with different conditions.

“They go through an orientation so they understand what is special needs and know the difference between autism, Down Syndrome and other conditions,” said Neena Raina, co-founder of the centre.

“The students come here with the idea that they are going to help students with special needs and during their time they see so many positive things like children who are artists, chefs, pianists. They soon understand that our children are talented and brilliant too.”

Spending time with their peers is an advantage because special needs students will absorb information and learn quicker.

The volunteer programme aims to change attitudes in the coming years.

“Parents with special needs kids often say that when they take their kids out some people raise their eyebrows and stare,” Ms Raina said.

“When we have more children who are trained, it will spread awareness as we will reach others too and such families will become more comfortable. We know it’s a huge challenge, but it’s not impossible.”

Source: The National