"What will happen to our child once we are gone?" wondered Prakash and Usha Bal, parents of a child who was born blind and with severe autism in a northern suburb of Mumbai, India. "That was our wake up call," said Usha.
That wake-up call led the couple to establish the SOBTI Vocational Training Center in January of 2007, the first school in the region to accept children who have multiple disabilities.
At SOBTI – the name means companion in Hindi – the primary focus is on vocation and life skills trainings. Students learn to create numerous items including artificial jewelry, seasonal food items, candles, and greeting cards.
Perhaps the greatest key to success is the involvement and partnerships that the teachers and students have with the parents, said Prakash Bal. Not only do the parents learn important ways to communicate and interact with their own child, but they play a key role in teaching life skills to all the students.
This includes weekly outings where they take the students to many places in the city via public transportation. Whether the goal is to go to the market and buy vegetables or simply to make students more aware of the outside world, the result is an increase in independence, confidence and sense of responsibility for all the students.
SOBTI was the answer for Gaurav Vijay Singh, who, at 2 years old, had lost both eyes due to cancer. Like many of the students at SOBTI, Gaurav was accustomed to being turned away from schools.
By 2006, at the age of 12, Gaurav and his parents had all but given up on his education when teachers from the National Association for the Blind (NAB)– a Perkins partner organization – arrived at their home. The teachers recognized Gaurav's capacity and desire to attend school and they knew exactly where to send him.
Today, 18-year-old Gaurav is a star student at SOBTI. He is in grade seven and he can read and write braille. Gaurav shops and cooks on his own, and he dreams of going to college and becoming a doctor.
The success of students like Gaurav has led to SOBTI's recent growth. In 2010, in order to meet the increasing need for a center in the western suburbs, Perkins International financed the establishment of a second center and NAB offered them a space they could use at nominal rent. Both SOBTI centers continue to work in close collaboration with the NAB.
Thanks to the Bals' commitment, the overwhelming dedication of the teachers, and the SOBTI Parents Association, many parents of children with multiple disabilities now possess the comfort of knowing that their child has a secure future.
The story of SOBTI is truly the story of a successful partnership, said Usha Bal.
"Perkins gave us the training," she said, and "NAB gave us the inspiration."