Chance meeting inspires Dubai mothers to set up special needs centre

The centre is a first of its kind in the country as it specialises in bringing out the best in children through classes in martial arts, yoga, cooking, music, theatre and arts.

Varun Raina learns to drum from activity leader Samson Agibola at the Tender Hearts Arena in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National
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DUBAI // Arti Khazanchi and Neena Raina met at a Dubai driving licence centre three years ago, where they realised they went to the same school in India.

They also discovered a shared interest in filling the gap in after-school activities for children with special needs. Mrs Raina had been looking for a recreational centre for her autistic son, who was 6 at the time.

Great advances have been made in integrating special-needs children into schools but after-hours activities are not so common.

“Many of these children rarely, if ever, get the chance to do activities outside of school, if they attend school at all,” Mrs Khazanchi said.

They opened the Tender Hearts Arena in Umm Suqeim last month, after investing Dh350,000.

The centre has classes in martial arts, yoga, cooking, music, theatre and arts for children aged 6 to 17.

It caters for children with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, ADHD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

“We currently have about 10 children who take classes with us each week,” Mrs Raina said. “Many of these children are very creative and the classes we run aim to get them to express themselves, whether that is with painting, dance or music.”

She said she could see the results of inclusion in activities with her son. “He has autism and I’ve seen first-hand how encouraging him to pursue his passion has helped him.”

The boy’s talent for singing meant teachers were more willing for him to take part in classes with normal children, and he was able to develop.

Children are introduced to the centre with hour-long martial arts or yoga classes to get them relaxed before they move on to more creative sessions.

Tender Hearts Arena has now become a pilot project for Dubai’s Community Development Authority – great progress from that chance meeting three years ago.

“There was no classification for a recreational special-needs centre so there was a lot of back and forth to try to find a suitable location for us,” Mrs Raina said.

Now fully open, the centre has a kitchen, library and rooms for music, the arts, martial arts, yoga and games.

It is run as a business and charges Dh80 for an hourly session and Dh150 for one-on-one music classes.

There are 12 staff, a mix of full-time, part-time and volunteers. Every class is assisted by one of two nurses and sessions are recorded and used as feedback for parents.

Parents can also visit a website where they are given regular reports on how their children are doing, with videos of sessions.

“Children with special needs can be slower learners compared with other children but by using physical activity and encouraging them to be creative, we can get them to come out of their shells,” Mrs Khazanchi said.

“We want these children to grow up to be active members of society and to do that we, as a community, need to recognise their value and worth.”

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