Jifu Bunnik’s face lit up when she scored a basket surrounded by players of a rival school’s basketball team who cheered her on.
She was among the first batch of students with special needs from Tender Hearts Arena to take part in a twice-a-week after school programme that began this month covering sports, music and art classes with pupils from Ambassador School.
As part of a ‘buddy’ programme, students with disabilities are moving out of their comfort zone and leaving the familiar settings of their centre for a mainstream school campus where they pair up with non-special needs students in extracurricular activities to encourage learning and inclusion.
At first Jifu, who is autistic, appeared taken aback to be on a basketball court with students she did not know. Her alarm quickly turned to excitement when she shot a few baskets following careful instructions from the coach who asked her to aim for the hoop and disregard the players around her.
“I like swimming, football, hockey,” said the beaming 16-year-old when asked about sports she enjoyed.
On the far end of the court, other students from Tender Hearts went through simple drills of bouncing and dribbling the ball.
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The initiative that began with basketball, music and art last month will grow to include athletics and martial arts depending on the skill and interest levels of the students with special needs.
Meghna Shreshta, 16, from Ambassador School has been volunteering at Tender Hearts since last summer and has developed close connections.
“Hands down this is one of my best experiences. I worked with a few students and now I know their strengths, so when they come to our school I know how to motivate them to take up something they may not want to do. I know I can convince one girl to go to martial arts classes if we would do bead work later because that is what she loves,” she said.
“We want them to feel at home and that they are not alone in this. We have planned a lot of sporty and fun activities with them. We just want them to have a nice time when they come to our school. Maybe coming to a new environment will make those who are not very vocal find other ways to communicate and interact with people they don’t know.”
Apart from the races and sports planned, it will give some children an opportunity to reach past personal barriers, develop new skills and forge friendships.
Eight-year-old Anirvaan Choudhary’s family did not know he was a talented musician until a year ago when he began recreational activities at Tender Hearts.
His mother Jyoti believes interaction after school with mainstream students will help her high-functioning autistic son communicate further.
“Being with regular children is what he needs and maybe he could make friends. Seeing other children, he will learn, it will give him confidence to communicate,” she said.
Like other parents, Sawssan Fraiwat had heard of the 2019 Special Olympics World Games to be held in Abu Dhabi and hoped watching athletes with developmental disabilities perform would help people understand their condition.
Her 18-year-old son Abdullah Sultan Al Mazrooei cannot play sports because of seizures he suffers due to epilepsy.
"He likes to play with the ball. In the mall sometimes I make him leave the wheelchair and walk a little. But people and children stare, it's as if they are afraid of him. My Abdullah looks normal but his head shakes because he has less balance.
“He is the heart of our family and everybody loves him. Maybe these activities, the Olympics will help more people understand and not be afraid.”