x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Special needs centre helps young gain independence

A special needs centre in Umm Suqeim 3 cares for children with disabilities all year round.

Nirmala Vongunster, a nurse, felt the centre was so good for her dyslexic daughter Ornella, 20, left, she decided to become a full-time employee.
Nirmala Vongunster, a nurse, felt the centre was so good for her dyslexic daughter Ornella, 20, left, she decided to become a full-time employee.

DUBAI // Saleh awkwardly tries to sit down at his desk but loses his balance.

Khalid, working on a class assignment nearby, throws down his pencil, jumps up from his desk, rushes to his friend's side, and gently guides him into his chair.

Saleh, 20, from Pakistan, has a form of muscular dystrophy that makes movement difficult. Khalid, 14, from Bahrain, is autistic.

Both are being taught at the Senses Residential and Day Care Centre in the shadow of the Burj Al Arab hotel in Umm Suqeim 3.

"This is just like Khalid, always thinking of the welfare of other people," says Dr Lina Owies, the executive manager of the centre. "When we go out on trips Khalid, who is one of our residential children, and a few of the others act like the staff, pushing wheelchairs, carrying bags for the younger children, they all care very much for each other."

The centre is home to 78 children and young people from the age of three. Some call the centre home, others use it only for day care. "The special needs issues that we see range from mild autism through to severe cerebral palsy," says Dr Owies.

Parents are often left with no alternative but to send them to Senses.

This can be because of the severity of the condition their children have, or because of a family circumstance such as a parent's death, making it too difficult for the surviving parent to care for the child alone.

Although there is a fee for treatment, most parents do not pay. The centre is run as a not-for-profit organisation, depending on donations from the public, as well as support from companies.

The centre needs about Dh250,000 each month to pay for medicine, food, salaries and transportation.

"We rely heavily on people who not only donate money but also their time and energy to help us," says Johnny Miller, who runs music therapy sessions at the centre.

"We are very lucky because the staff we have managed to get to work here are highly trained. We can't afford to pay the highest salaries but they stay because they love working here and helping the children."

Much of the furniture, computers and medical equipment has been donated by companies in Dubai.

Dubai Volunteers organises the weekly Sunday Funday visits for children to places such as Wild Wadi and Ski Dubai.

At the centre, there is a variety of therapies, including speech and physiotherapy. There are other treatments in music, movement and education. Additionally, the centre has a sensory integration room, which allows children to experience and control an environment with lights, colours, sounds and tactile toys.

"We help them to be more independent by teaching them how to do things like dress themselves, brush their teeth, and wash," Dr Owies says. "It might sound like simple things but these are the basics they need to learn how to do."

Senses was co-founded in 2004 by the Emirati Nadia Khalil Al Sayegh and Kerry Hackeson, a Briton.

The facility was originally located in a Jumeirah villa. The centre moved into its new complex just over a year ago after Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, donated the buildings and the land.

The new centre allows room for more facilities, including a gym, classrooms, sleeping quarters, and play areas filled with toys for younger children. Organisers also want to develop a hydrotherapy area, which would cost Dh1million. They are appealing to the public for funding.

The centre consists of two two-storey buildings. One of them houses the treatment rooms and the other is residential. For many of the 64 full-time staff, the work is a labour of love as much as a profession.

Nirmala Vongunster, from Sri Lanka, a nurse by profession, has been working as a teacher with Senses for six years. She also has a 20-year-old daughter, Ornella, who attends classes there, for dyslexia. Her daughter had been attending a normal school in Sri Lanka, but found it a difficult environment because teachers could not understand her needs.

"I love working with these children and the improvement I've seen in my own daughter over the past few years has been amazing," says Mrs Vongunster. "She is a lot more expressive now, and the confidence she has received here has been fantastic."

Her daughter agrees: "I help my mum in the classes now, and I love being around the children. Things are so much better since I started coming here for the past few years."

The centre is open Saturday to Thursday and is the only special needs centre in Dubai that is open all year. To donate or learn more about Senses contact the centre on 04 4572675.

nhanif@thenational.ae