Giving special needs adults a break

12 Apr 2021 / 10:59 H.

THE spotlight is often on children when it comes to helping people with special needs. At Gem and Bread, however, it is the adults who get all the attention.

Apart from practical living and social skills, art is also a big part of the education system at the centre, which is located in Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya.

The syllabus covers personal care, home management and the arts, according to co-founder Teresa Tan and Sharanya Radhakrishnan, which will build confidence in adults with special needs to allow them to thrive.

Tan said the idea took root six years ago when she saw how special needs people struggled at their jobs, mostly because of a lack of awareness on their challenges.

But she also had a personal reason for taking on the challenge. Her son Karl, now aged 25, was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old.

Tan said she started to worry for Karl, especially his future, as he grew up.

“Eventually, I wouldn’t be around to help him,” she told theSun.

“I started to dream of a place where he could learn and work.” She then got to know other parents who were in the same predicament.

“I believe that despite their shortcomings, special needs people should also be given the same opportunity to shine,” she said.

Tan and Sharanya worked together to design an art-based curriculum which they said would serve their students better.

They learn to emerge from their own little world through dance and drama, but it is the other skills such as baking, creating quill art greeting cards and stringing beads into necklaces and bracelets that would become their source of income.

Tan said the proceeds from the sale of the arts and craft pieces made by the students are used to fund the operations of Gem and Bread, a non-profit organisation.

While the movement control order (MCO), due to the Covid-19 pandemic, has forced classes to go virtual, there are bigger plans for the future when face-to-face meetings are allowed again.

Tan said a new and larger premises has been found in nearby Damansara Kim where the 15 students will get more space to learn how to run a café and get paid for their work.

“We’ll need to operate as a social enterprise to make sure everyone gets their fair share from the jewellery-making and café businesses,” she said.

To get the students ready for the real world of running a café, a mock outlet has been created where they get to experience serving customers.

“Here, they also learn how to cook and manage the finances,” Tan said.

Apart from the sale of art and craft pieces, Gem and Bread also raises funds through special-themed charity dinners but the money is still not sufficient to cover the cost of running the centre.

In April last year, in conjunction with World Autism Awareness Month, Tan decided to shave her head to draw attention to people with special needs.

Her photos, which were posted on Facebook, drew widespread attention and money began pouring in. “In all, we raised RM50,000,” Tan said.

However, monthly expenses come up to about RM30,000, which forced them to dip into their savings to make ends meet.

Sharanya, who teaches drama therapy, said during the MCO, she was forced to conduct classes through Zoom, a medium that is not quite as efficient as actual classroom work.

It was during these virtual lessons when the students kept asking when they could return to classes again.

Tan and Sharanya hope classes will resume soon for the benefit of the students.

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