It is late afternoon and, in an ordinary-looking villa in a laid-back Umm Suqeim neighbourhood in Dubai, there is just a hint of chaos.
Children are running about excitedly; music is playing loudly; laughter and chatter is ringing out all over.
In one room half a dozen youngsters are practising dance steps. In another, a couple are slouched on beanbags looking through books. Upstairs, a mini musician is learning guitar and eyeing up a drum kit in the corner. Later still, four or five of these kids will have a bash at elementary martial arts.
Welcome to Tender Hearts Arena, the UAE’s first dedicated recreational centre for children with special abilities.
The place may look like any other villa from the outside, but within, this one-time residence has undergone a Dh750,000 transformation.
Where living rooms and bedrooms once were, there’s now a dance studio, a yoga area, a library (or a sort-of-library – more books are needed), an entertainment zone and a music room complete with keyboard, guitars and drums. There are beanbags strewn all over, children’s paintings on the walls – done in the dedicated arts space – and space hoppers in corners. Out the back, there’s a yard that in winter will have a trampolining zone and reading area. A mini plant garden may be created.
Pre-booked sessions offered here will include everything from theatre to cooking, yoga to a brain gym, and the aforementioned dance, martial arts and music tutorials. It will cater for children aged five and upwards diagnosed with conditions such as autism, dyslexia, Down’s syndrome and slow learning. The centre, which opened earlier this year, is already busy with its first batch of students.
‘The most important thing to remember is that this isn’t a school or educational facility,’ says Arti Khazanchi, who co-founded the place with friend Neena Raina. ‘It’s a recreation centre.
‘So, while we believe the children who come here will develop – will learn the skills and confidence that will allow them to enjoy rich, fulfilling and independent lives – the point is also to create a place that is joyful and fun and social; where there is laughter, discovery and all those other hallmarks of a healthy childhood; where, when they leave, they can’t wait to come back again.’ In a city renowned for moving fast, Tender Hearts – a not-for-profit enterprise that employs 11 staff including course instructors, nurses and a counsellor – has been a long time in the development.
It all started back in 2011 when Neena, originally from Kashmir, India, first moved to the UAE.
Her son Verun, now 16, is autistic. He attends a special needs school and requires regular attention. On arrival in the country she kept asking other parents for clubs or recreational centres he could attend in his leisure time.
‘But there didn’t seem to be anywhere for children with special abilities,’ says the 47-year-old mother-of-two of The Meadows. ‘There were schools and therapy centres, of course. But nowhere he could go to just enjoy himself. No drama classes or sports clubs.’
She says that if he did show an inclination to attend a sports or arts class, she used to struggle to find one. ‘We had to go to individual places and say, “He has autism – is it OK to bring him along?”, and often the answer was that they weren’t adapted to help,’ says Neena.
So, along with friend Arti – a pharmaceutical project manager who had spent much of her life in the UAE volunteering at places for children with special abilities – the two decided to set up their own centre. It would offer, they planned, a range of after-school and weekend activities that were so easily available to most children. It would develop, the aim was, all those intangible but crucial skills in children such as imagination, confidence, and self-esteem.
There were special schools that provided education, a centre that offered lessons in music, academies that gave martial arts lessons – but there was no centre that offered all these under one roof, says Arti, a 46-year-old mother-of-one of Palm Jumeirah. Once they received the necessary permission from the licensing authorities they scouted for a suitable villa, negotiated renting it and went about converting the place. Everything they have spent – and that Dh750,000 includes big screens for every room, café-style facilities in reception and coloured soft-flooring and walls – came from their own savings.
‘We invested time and money,’ says Neena. ‘And we did that because we really believe this is something that can improve the lives of such children in Dubai and make them a valuable part of this community.’
So far the evidence suggests they might be right.
This summer they’ve had a soft opening with a summer camp-style programme where youngsters spend a week or so trying out the various activities on offer. One parent whose child has gone along is Ravi Dhanawade. He says 17-year-old autistic son Rohan’s behaviour has improved almost beyond recognition as a result.
‘He’s tried karate and yoga and music at the centre, and he’s been getting up in the morning just excited to come along,’ he says. ‘And I think because he has that element of mixing with others, it’s helped him at home too.
‘It’s little things. I’ve noticed he’s making a lot more eye contact of late, and he’s happier to be around strangers. I put that down to the dedication of the staff. They encourage the children to mix, which is something you don’t always get at some of the schools.’
The feedback has pleased Neena and Arti. That’s because, while the point is joy, they also reckon the sessions on offer will provide this kind of indirect therapy to the youngsters.‘The problem is you might take a child to an occupational therapist once or twice a week but then that child rarely gets a chance to practise the skills they learn there, whether those be motor neurone or interpersonal skills,’ says Neena.
‘Here they do. By mixing with other children, their confidence and sociability develops, and by getting involved in sessions like music or art, for instance, they learn enjoyable activity-specific skills.’ That, in turn, promotes independence, respect, responsibility and the ability to express one’s self through creativity, Arti says. ‘And all that is key to an independent future life.’ Neena adds that her own son has improved in confidence since he started lessons at the centre.
Now, both Neena and Arti are looking forward to the first term proper. So far, they’ve got 12 children booked in for sessions (there’s a maximum of five youngsters per session), although as word of mouth spreads they’re hoping that will go up. After all, they can cater for up to 250 youngsters a week.
‘The joy of this,’ says Arti, ‘is when a parent comes up to you and says, “You know, my child has really come on since they started coming here, they are a different person”.
‘That’s what we’re aiming for. We just want to make a difference to these young lives.’