NGOs and formal charities are pretty new to Oman. Following up from our feature highlighting Muscat Confidential's designated charity of Dar Al Atta last week, here's an interview with another dedicated woman doing great things: Kawthar Al Balushi and her Creative Learning Centre.
Her story reminds me of how lucky I am to have a healthy family, and how selfish I am with my time and talents compared to angels like Kawthar and Lubna.
One of the biggest growing problems in Oman is combination of the traditional attitude to handicapped children, a culture of inter-marrying between close family members (first cousins) and modern medical care. This has resulted in a flood of disabled children, in a country and society that is ill-equipped to cater for their needs. It's also a subject that is seldom talked about. The modern understanding science has brought to us about how many of these disabilities are caused is not widely known, and giving birth to a disabled child is often seen in Oman as a punishment from God or some other bullshit. Increased chance of Down's Syndrome, for example, is often associated with mothers who give birth in middle age (>40 yrs old).
I would note the Oman Government at present offers precious little support, or education, in regard to handicapped children. This should change. The way His Majesty requested that handicapped children take pride of place at a recent event, riding horses as a part of a parade before him, should be taken as an emphasis that these children deserve respect and fair treatment.
So, here's an interview with Kawthar Al-Balushi, Co-founder of the Creative Learning Center, an educational and care center for handicapped children and children with learning difficulties. I encourage readers to take up her request for assistance. She needs the help.
Any profits are donated to the orphanage for Omani children in Al Khuwair (although I'm not sure there are any profits right now. I suspect Kawthar and her family are still supporting the CLC with hefty sums of their own money, as well as huge commitments of time and dedication).
Undercover Dragon: Thank you for speaking with us here at Muscat Confidential Kawthar. What is the CLC and how did it come to begin and survive?
Kawthar Al Balushi: Creative Learning Center is a center for handicapped children and children with learning disabilities. Our mission is to educate the special needs child and those children with learning disabilities. We believe that all children are gifts from God and no child should be denied an education because of a disability. We also believe that all children are creative in their own way. Hence the name “Creative Learning Center”.
Anyone that wants more information about the center may contact 95307344
It began for the simple reason that I could not find good education for my own son who has mirror image dyslexia. We had put him in 3 or 4 different schools and within a month the school would call and tell us that they could not facilitate his needs. He was then home schooled until we opened the center.
When we first opened, we opened without anything. I had gotten money from friends and realities, around 11,000 RO. We had assumed this was enough to start and surely the community would community would come forward to support these children, especially the poor families. However, we found this was not the case at all. We found that many companies where not willing to support the center because it was private even though we had a social program for poor families.
The first year anyone whose income fell below 500 RO was going for free they had to only pay for the bus fees. 70% of our kids were on this social program so that put us in a deep dark hole.
We had to mortgage our house in order to survive. My husband mortgaged out house for 60,000 RO and this is how we made it through the first year.
How many children does it help right now? What is life like for a typical student vs how it would be if they were not at your school?
For many of the children going to the center, they were shut ins before they joined. Just wasting their day away with the TV.
Now, because there is something for them they are doing a lot of different activities.
For autistic children we first focus on the social aspect. We have to teach them how to sit, how to eat, how to go to the toilet. After that is accomplished we try to get them involved in different educational activities.
Photo: In class at the Creative Learning Centre, CLC.
The children have arts and crafts, computer, English and Arabic, music as well as the therapies they may need- such as phyical, occupational, and speech.
We have found that children with down syndrome are very capable of learning. We have a group of young learners with down syndrome who are now learning to read and write…. All they needed was the opportunity to learn.
UD: The tendency of Omani's to marry close genetic relatives, a high proportion of several recessive genetic illnesses, and modern medical care, have resulted in a surge of children affected by genetic abnormalities. How is this problem being currently addressed, and what is your advice to the Government on how to improve the situation (at a reasonable cost)?
KB: You are correct in this. I think there needs to be more education in the schools on what the results can be for those that intermarry. Many of the families here in Oman are still intermarrying their sons and daughters. We need to educate the students in high school about intermarrying and how this can result in genetic abnormalities in children.
UD: What is your greatest challenge in running the CLC?
Our biggest challenge is getting sponsorship for the children from under privileged families. The first year these families were going for free and that put us in a lot of financial difficulties. Now, students whose family’s combined income falls under 600 RO per month, pay a percentage of their income 5-15% depending on their social situation. In order for our social program to continue we have to have the support of the community.
UD: What is your biggest mistake with CLC?
KB: Trusting the wrong people when we first opened. There are a lot of sharks that want to thrive on the misfortune of others… and we meet a lot of those sharks when we first opened our doors.
UD: What has been your biggest joy?
KB: Seeing the smiling faces of the children coming through the door and the tears of a parent when they see their child read for the first time, speak for the first time or take a step for the first time… especially when the doctors told them they would never be able to do these skills.
UD: How can readers of Muscat Confidential assist in your efforts?
KB: The biggest way would be supporting the fees of an under privileged child. Another way would be to volunteer.. We are always looking for volunteers. A volunteer needs experience working with children. Preferably an educational degree of some kind. The last way would be with supplies… Such as art supplies, physical therapy equipment, book, toys, food etc.
UD: What advice would you give to an Omani couple who have just given birth to a disabled child?
KB: I would first say have patience… This child is your child and don’t give it away to the orphanage. I would also say educate yourself about your child’s condition. Education is power. And lastly see what medical facilities and educational facilities are available in Oman for your child’s condition. Above all do not take your frustration out on your child. All children are gifts from God no matter what their condition may be.
UD: Do you have anything else to say about the CLC and your mission to my readers?
KB: Yes, First I would like to talk about our programs.
The first program I want to talk about is our special education program.
We are taking children with autism, down syndrome, mentally challenged students as well as other conditions. As of right now we are teaching these children using the Montessori method of education. We have had good results with this method within the last 2 years. The children have improved behavior wise, socially and educationally.
Photo: Cooking with young children at CLC.
However, we are planning to move over to the ABA (applied behavior analysis) for autistic children the next year. It focus on the idea that by influencing a response associated with a behavior may cause that behavior to be shaped and controlled. ABA is a mixture of psychological and educational techniques that are utilized based upon the needs of each individual child.
We are planning to continue with the Montessori method of education for children with down syndrome, mentally challenged children and other conditions, because we have found that we have had good results using these methods.
Within this special education side, we have two sections of young adults whose ages fall between 19-27. We have one section of down syndrome learners and one section of students that are mentally challenged. We are hoping to expand on this section next year and hopefully move them into a building of their own. We feel that it is important for these young adults to get out of their home environment to have some activities to do. We focus on literacy skills (Arabic and English), computer skills, arts and music. They all enjoy the time with us.
We also have a section for children with learning disabilities. Most of these children have not been able to function in the mainstream school. A lot of them have been asked to leave the school. Most of the children are suffering from dyslexia. The conditions run from moderate to very severe. We have some students with ADD and ADHD. We also have a two children with autism in the learning disabilities section, we felt that they were ready to be changed from the special education side. They have come a far way in the last few years.
Photo: CLC students celebrate National Day!
We also have a High School section. For both morning and evening. This program is for students that have not been able to graduate from high school because of a disability. We have mostly dyslexic students in our high school programs. We also have 3 students that are mentally challenged in the morning program. They are doing well. The high school program comes from an accredited school with in the United States. So all the students completing the high school program will receive a US high school diploma. This program is only for students that have not been able to attend high school in Oman. We do not take transfers from other schools just because they want an American Certificate. They must have a disability to attend this program.
We also have an Evening Program. This focuses on children that have learning problems that are attending regular schools. Right now we only have support in English; however, we are hoping to expand that to Arabic as well. We have not been successful in getting Arabic speaking volunteers for this program.
There are therapies available for students at the center: speech, occupational, and physical.
We also see children that are not registered in the center, by appointment only. There is also educational evaluations available on Sat, Mon and Wed from 8-12 by appointment only. And in the evenings from 4-6 by appointment only.
We are planning a fun camp this year for both handicapped children and children with learning difficulties. It will be an activity based camp, completely in English. We will have sports activities, field trips, art activities, computer, and English language activities. It will start from June 1st till the end of August. There will be 3 sessions.
We will have the younger groups going in the morning from 9-1 (ages 5-12) and the older kids from 13 yrs and above going in the evenings.
Our plans for the future includes expanding our adult programs, so adults with special needs have a place to go and learn. We are hoping this will happen next year.
UD: One final question: When do you get a chance to sleep?!?
KB: Hardly at all!
UD: Thank you for the interview Kawthar.
Wow. What a story.
So, put away those tissues and get donating! Anyone that wants more information about the center may contact 95307344