The Chitra Lane Way and the pandemic: Delysia Gunewardene
Working with children is always challenging yet rewarding, and this is even more so when working with children who have special needs. A stalwart for parents and children with special needs is the Chitra Lane Children’s Resource Centre and the Chitra Lane School.
Founded in 1967 by Delysia Gunewardene, the Chitra Lane School for the Special Child has, over the past 50 years, worked tirelessly to help children with special needs learn and grow and take their place in society.
Gunewardene was not trained in special needs education. She educated herself with the resources available to her in 1967, when she saw that the special needs children at her daughter’s montessori were not learning the way their peers did, and required special attention. the Chitra Lane story began in a small rented room at the Joyce Goonesekera Montessori with two children, engaging them in basic activities while being sensitive to each child’s unique special needs.
Eventually, once numbers grew and they needed to find a space of their own, Gunewardene registered her initiative as a welfare society, for them to be able to raise funds and expand. This was the seed of what is today the Chitra Lane Welfare Society, which now touches the lives of over 1,000 children with special needs each year through their initiatives. The majority of these children are from low-income families who rely on the Chitra Lane Welfare Society for the wellbeing of their children.
Each of the Chitra Lane School’s initiatives works to help children with special needs live their fullest lives, and become productive members of their families and communities.
the Chitra Lane School for the Special Child works with over 250 students from five to 17 years old, teaching them the “Chitra Lane Way”, allowing them to develop at their own pace and encouraging them to reach their fullest potential.
The Chitra Lane Sheltered Workshop allows students over 16 years old to develop and practice vocational skills cooking and sewing to printing and more.
The Chitra Lane Resource Centre offers various therapies, from occupational therapy to speech therapy, behavioural modification art therapy, counselling for parents, IQ testing, infant stimulation, and more.
The Chitra Lane Academy focuses on teaching and training potential teachers from all over Sri Lanka on how to manage the special needs of the children that mainstream education tends to overlook.
The Chitra Lane Sheltered Workshop recently went digital, with the products made by students at the workshop being made available on the e-commerce platform, whoweare.lk. The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to the Chitra Lane Welfare Society for Children with Special Needs Founder and President Delysia Gunewardene on this milestone and for some insight on working with children with special needs during the pandemic.
Excerpts from the interview below:
The Chitra Lane Sheltered Workshop has recently been taken online with whoweare.lk. Please tell us a little more about the Sheltered Workshop and how this came to be.
Over 50 years ago, when the Chitra Lane School was initially started, we worked with children with special needs from five to 17 years old. We found that some of the students graduating from the Chitra Lane School were really not ready to go out into society. They needed further training in vocational and self-help skills to become independent and productive members of their family and community. As a result, the Chitra Lane Sheltered workshop was established.
Initially, we started with envelope making, paper-bag making, and carpentry. At that time, we had a kind young carpenter who was happy to work with our students. The carpentry section was a great success and the students were taught to repair the school furniture, do painting work, etc. Unfortunately, after many years, the young carpenter started up his own carpentry shop and moved on. We were devastated, as we knew we would never get a dedicated teacher like him again. Sadly, the carpentry section is not functioning anymore.
But, thanks to many creative and dedicated teachers and volunteers, the Sheltered Workshop has expanded over the years, covering skills like working within an office, cleaning and maintenance work, sewing and embroidery, recycled paper production, screen printing, and cookery.
Soon, the items produced at the Chitra Lane Sheltered Workshop, from delicious patties and butter cake, wrapping paper made from old newspaper, to beautiful cross-stitch purses and tote bags, were a great success and came to be very much in demand. We are very grateful to whoweare.lk for selling our products online which provides much-needed income to our young adults with special needs and their mothers who assist with the production.
We also find that our vocational training programmes have enabled many of our senior students to get outside employment following graduation. We ourselves have now employed 12 of them within our programmes. We also train and encourage parents so that they can work with their child and create small businesses in their own homes.
How has Chitra Lane managed the pandemic? What has the biggest challenge been?
Fortunately, we formed an action committee with 10 staff, including consultants, volunteers, and administration staff. This has been a great help during the lockdown, as we meet on Zoom regularly to plan programmes for our students, update and create new activities, discuss how we should move forward, and solve any problems that crop up.
Our teachers have been able to work with students online using WhatsApp to develop various skills. Sadly, it was recently discussed that we will not be able to continue the computer programme for some of our students online due to the fact that they do not have a tab or computer, as we are unable to teach the computer programme proficiently on a mobile phone that is shared by parents and siblings. We are looking at a solution to this issue going forward, but we will be continuing the other programmes with these students.
The biggest problem we have is that there are many students who respond best to a face-to-face, one-on-one situation, especially with physiotherapy, play therapy, behaviour modification, and speech therapy. We still continue this as best as we can online. If both parents are working, it becomes even more difficult.
What are the Chitra Lane School’s thoughts and hopes for 2021?
2020 was a huge challenge for our students and their families, as well as our staff. However, it is amazing how our staff have come forward with new and creative ideas on how to work online with our special children. We are extremely grateful for their dedication to the students and the school.
Our sincere hope is that we will be able to safely reopen the Chitra Lane School early this year and continue with our programmes, which will now be much easier and even more effective due to all the online planning, training, and problem solving that was done throughout the pandemic. Through this experience, we hope that all our staff will have much success in conducting programmes in truly the “Chitra Lane Way”.