Atmavishwas Centre deals in vocational training for young adults with special needs. What sets it apart from the other such spaces in Goa is the community library and its café located– the Casa dos Gamas – run solely by special people. NT KURIOCITY speaks with founder Liane da Gama to know more
Alisha Nicole Carvalho | NT KURIOCITY
Goa has quite a few institutions for children with special needs, but what happens once those courses come to end and the children graduate? Here steps in Liane da Gama, a special educator with 18 years experience in the field of special education and founder of vocational training centre, Atmavishwas Centre located in Verna. With a café and community library for young adults with special needs, it is a place where skills are honed and students are gently nudged in the direction of employability.
Excerpts from the interview
- Could you tell us about yourself?
I was born and raised in Mumbai, and came to Goa to work. I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology, a bachelor’s in education (special education) and a certificate in curative education and social therapy. I was in upstate New York for two years where I lived, learned and worked in a community for people with disabilities. I have been in the field of special education for the past 18 years.
- What is the Atmavishwas centre and how did it take shape?
Atmavishwas means self confidence and this is what we want to instill in all our trainees that pass through our doors. Atmavishwas centre is a vocational training centre where we have had to modify programmes and adapt them depending on individual needs. The story of the inception of the centre begins with my younger brother who has Down Syndrome and needed a place to go to after he finished with his special school in Mumbai. We looked but couldn’t find a place where he fit in and could be challenged to perform. By then I had finished my training and thus began the Atmavishwas centre in Mumbai, along with my mother. After returning from the US I moved to Goa to start this branch. I am the project coordinator of Atmavishwas Goa as well as the founder of this branch. Here I oversee all the planning, admissions and general well being of the trainees, along with teaching.
- Could you elaborate on the programmes and faculty at the centre?
The team of special educators uses teaching aides and works together with young adults with special needs. The centre has a volunteer programme as we believe in the dynamism that people bring.
We currently train the young adults train in what we call ‘home-based skills’ like paper work, jewellery making, candle making, handicrafts, gardening, baking and cooking.
We have just begun a pilot project wherein we train young adults with Down Syndrome in food production and service. We simultaneously offer life skill training that equips our students to be independent and socially included.
- You also have a community library and cafe. Where are they located and how does the library function?
The community library is located at the same premises in Verna as our centre. Through this library we hope to bring children (and adults) back to reading and facilitate spending time away from gadgets. We are becoming a gadget-driven and -bound society and social skills are getting affected. Many ‘regular’ children have more social skill problems than so called ‘special children’. We hope to have book reading clubs and story time sessions as well.
One can visit Casa dos Gamas that houses a café, creative centre as well as the community library. This space is also shared with Atmavishwas Centre. Readers have to register themselves and can then either take books out or read them in-house. We’ve built up our collection of books through a book-donation drive we carried out some time ago. We encourage people to come in and use the facility and experience the goodness of books.
- Is the café part of the centre? How does it help students towards inclusion in society?
The café is not a part of the vocational training centre, but has been designed to create the possibility for training and later employment for those with special needs who train at the Atmavishwas Hospitality Program. Trainees have their practical sessions at the café, giving them the opportunity to gain hands-on training and in the process meet and serve customers. We hope that future trainees will be able to work at different establishments within the hospitality field. By offering the community or society at large to see the capabilities of those with special needs, we are allowing them a chance to be accepted into society. With acceptance comes automatic inclusion. Inclusion only works if there’s acceptance and belief in the abilities of another human being.
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- How are the centre, library and café sustained? Have there been any setbacks?
Atmavishwas is supported by a corpus that was created initially by my parents and donors. We offer scholarships through the Atmavishwas Trust for students at our centre who cannot afford the fee. The library and café are proprietorship.
Everything has it challenges, but we do not let them come in the way of our functioning. The major setback faced when starting and also today is to get people and families to utilise our services. We are the only adult-based centre in Goa that offers vocational training and skill development to this special population as the other centres are attached to schools. We give our trainees the life progression from school to college.
- From your many years of experience and firsthand knowledge on the scenario, how do you think inclusion can be achieved wholeheartedly and quickly?
From personal experience, acceptance and social inclusion has made my younger brother the man he is today. Nothing can hold him back. He is an ace guitarist, now training in the café and someone who can hold himself in society. Yes, it is indeed a shock for families when they hear the news of disability, but the quicker the reality is accepted the more we can do with our children that will in turn help them on their life’s journey. Maybe they cannot do everything, but they can surely do something, so if we work with that something, we are giving them opportunity.
Each and every person has the right to dignity and inclusion irrespective of whether they have or do not have a disability. We need to take those with challenges out and equip them with skills that will allow them to be a functioning and contributing part of society to the best of their ability. I have travelled with five of my students to Europe for 21 days – each challenged in their own way, but as a group we believed in each other and looked out for each other. When we don’t take a second glance because someone is flapping a hand or using an adapted spoon to eat or because someone looks or moves differently than us, that’s the day we can say we are moving forward. The onus is on us mainstream people to open our lives and hearts to give opportunities to those who are not as able as us. I truly believe acceptance is the best tool to make inclusion a seamless part of everyday living.