Shop sells goods made by special needs children

Al Noor Training Centre for Children With Special Needs operates a store that sells products made by teenage pupils.

Bakery technician Ullas Kumar, left, and trainee Rushi Bora prepare brownie batter in the bakery unit at Al Noor Training Centre. Sarah Dea /The National
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DUBAI // At Al Noor Training Centre for Children With Special Needs, the focus is not on disabilities but on skills.

The centre’s Smiles N’ Stuff store sells products that children between the ages of 14 and 18 who have cognitive disabilities learn to make by hand, through one of four vocational training classes.

Everything from decorative bookends to beaded purses to baked goods is available for sale in single units or in bulk at centre’s storefront.

The centre is to launch an online store in the coming weeks to receive individual orders as well as corporate purchases.

“It is important that the end product, as you see here, are products created to a standard and quality that show an empowering image of our children, as opposed to poorly made products that only reinforce the limitations the children have,” said Isphana Al Khatib, director of the centre who helped establish the Smiles N’ Stuff brand and production model.

“It serves a huge purpose in raising awareness, or rather changing perceptions, because always people feel they cannot do much and, yes, we agree they have limitations.

“But it is how we utilise those limitations and how we give them the opportunity to participate within a community that really makes a difference.”

Profits from the store go towards the centre’s operating costs, which this year is about Dh17 million. About 50 per cent of the costs are covered by tuition, which is subsidised. The centre relies on donations to make up the rest. Last year, the student-made products earned the centre about Dh250,000, but the goal is not to make money, said Ranjini Ramnath, who heads the vocational training programme at the centre.

“More than that we want to raise awareness that what we make is quality,” she said. “If you go to the shop, you will not find anything that is shoddy. We want to send the message out that our children have abilities. Because everybody knows that they have disabilities, but we want this message to go across that the students – their collective abilities – can produce such products that are so well made and of such good quality.”

The vocational training is open to pupils who have the intellectual capacity to understand workplace hazards and know how to keep themselves and their peers safe.

There are four training units: baking, wood design technology, printing and fashion design. Usually, the children spend about three hours a week in the skills classes of their choice, Ms Ramnath said.

“Depending on what products we make, we teach them various things, like cutting using the scroll saw cutter, painting, sanding. But what we also do is we teach them work-related skills,” said Ms Ramnath, who has been at the centre for 18 years.

Each class has a teacher and a licensed technician, as well as alumni who volunteer or work as trainees as part of the work placement programme, which is a more rigorous version of the vocational training open to graduates aged 18 and older. The centre has hired nine of its graduates as staff members.

Russell Lobo, a 38-year-old native of India who has lived in Dubai for 33 years and studied at Al Noor in his late teens, works in the centre’s wood design technology unit.

He expertly slides blocks of traced wood around the scroll cutter to produce intricate pieces the students use to build tissue box holders, bookends, serving trays, picture frames and other decorative and functional gifts.

“The programme helped me in a lot of ways,” said Mr Lobo, whose speciality is carving names out of wooden blocks.

It taught him “self-independence”, he said.

“I work. What is given to me, I complete the task. OK, it may not be done today or tomorrow, but I complete the product.”