How it all started – Back in October 2009 I received an e-mail from a parent of my children's school asking for a donation of bicycles to a school for mentally handicapped children. It was a long letter (at least by my standards) but the first two paragraphs hinted that there was something that Lions Heraldic could do to contribute. Here's what the parent wrote:
My son is attending a primary school for children with special needs in Heverlee, near to Leuven. This school, called Woudlucht, takes care of children with learning problems but also of children with mild to severe mental disabilities. A considerable number of these children are coming from underprivileged families.
This year the school started a project which they named 'Everyone on wheels'. The first goal of this project is to teach all the children to ride a bicycle, afterwards they will also organise school outings so that they learn how to behave in real traffic situations. Riding a bicycle will not only be a big accomplishment for these children now but also an important factor in their degree of independency when they become adults. ...
Dream Your School- The story started like this. Woudlucht entered a competition sponsored by Cera, a cooperative financial institution, and won a prize of about €5,000 for their “Everyone on wheels” bicycle project.
Now the problem starts! How do you best spend the money? Is the money sufficient to buy enough bikes for all the school kids as well as the necessary accessories to maintain and protect these bikes so that they will continue to serve the school in years to come?
With 375 pupils aged between 8 and 12 and 112 teachers. The answer is a clear 'No'. Hence the idea of asking people to donate unwanted bicycles and use the prize money for maintenance. Woudlucht was hoping to get about 50 bikes. They couldn't be less pessimistic, they received over 100 bikes of different sizes and conditions!
Suddenly the problem gets worse. Where do you store 100 bikes? Hence the bicycle shed subproject. This is what they asked Lions Heraldic to help them to build - a bicycle shed.
But who are these kids that ride these bicycles?
Autistic Disorder- Woudlucht specialises in educating children with autistic disorders. The term rings a bell but what is it? I found this excellent layman's description of autism on Research Autism website:
- Autism is a form of autism spectrum disorder.
- Each person with autism is a unique individual, with his or her own strengths and weaknesses.
- Some people with autism have extremely good memories or are good at paying attention to detail.
- However most people with autism also find it difficult to talk to other people or to make friends. Some may not even be able to talk at all.
- People with autism tend to have poor coordination and concentration and they usually have a limited range of interests. And they may do things or say things over and over again.
- Sometimes people with autism behave oddly. For example they may flap their hands or repeat words over and over again. They may also develop obsessional interests.
- Some people with autism have other disabling conditions, such as a learning disability or epilepsy.
- There is no cure for autism but there are some treatments and therapies (interventions) which can help solve some of the problems faced by people with autism and their families.
Close encounter - On a chilly sunny morning in May, I drop by Woudlucht to get a glimpse of what it takes to educated autistic children. Jona, a young energetic teacher and the project leader of the
“Everyone on wheels” project, takes me to see the classes.
My visit obviously distracts the concentration of the children. One child is apparently so upset that he wanted me to leave by gesticulating and point at the door. The teacher says repeatedly that they've been told about my visit but for some it is hard to take. Indeed, routine is important for children. It appears to be critical for some autistic children. In Woudlucht, each child's routine is meticulously mapped out. His or her day's programme is laid out in picture cue-cards stuck in a column. As the day progresses, the cue-card is removed when that subject is done. I see kids dash over to their areas from time to time to check their programmes.
In another class I meet kids that have different behaviours or obsessions. I'm trying to avoid the word “problem” because by this time I feel that problem is only a point of view. You'll see why.
Colourful characters- There's J (let's not use their full name to leave them a bit of privacy) who has the uncontrollable urge to shout and jump from time to time. Quiet harmless but it can upset M is hung up with time. If you tell M that Mr. Smith will be arriving at 3 pm, them Mr. Smith better appears when his watch strikes 3 or he will be very upset and confused. No wonder Master M is always looking at his watch. I notice S has his study tucked away in a dark corner of the classroom. A cast down member of the group? No. Jona assures me that it's nothing to do with teacher's preference. S is not comfortable with bright light. R doesn't like noise and he needs to find refuge during breaks to get his quiet moments from other screaming kids. He is good at maths but he is poor in reading so maths questions that are expressed in Flemish have to be voiced out by the teacher. X treats everything as a game and does not know the limit between harmless play and hurtful games.
Find “Zen” here- I am amazed by these characters and impressed by the variety of methods these teachers have devised to communicate, to facilitate and to educate. Nothing can be taken for granted. These teachers must have an infinite capacity of patience. You've got to, else you will soon turn grey or lose all your hair!
Two Worlds on Heverlee- End of my tour. I bid Jona goodbye. I cast an eye on the surrounding before I get into my car and admire the mellow surrounding. The edge of the woods is just a stone's throw away. The “Everyone on Wheels” is such a natural idea.
The school is located in a leafy suburb of Heverlee, surrounded by handsome villas of well-to-do families. But sadly the fortune of these well-to-do families does not venture into the school ground. The kids in Woudlucht come from quite a different social class. And it give us Lions Heraldic a great satisfaction to have a chance to help these kids to find their places in society, one day.
VK June 2010