Monday, July 16, 2018

The Smile Farmer Speaks ....

Life has not been easy or smooth for me. Born with a disability which I completely ignored, diagnosed with 3rd stage breast cancer, unsettling marriage, a special needs child and many other spices made my life challenging.
But with guidance from Rayyan, my son and wisdom that came with life experience, I made some right choices in later part of life and settled down. Good job, financially secure and a bit bored. In January 2017, I put aside some money for my trip once again to USA to meet my sisters in survival. This is when I came across a place which was barely suitable for starting a preschool and day-care center. I had to make a choice. Go ahead and meet my sisters in survivals after a decade of our first meeting or start with my dream project.

How it looks now...

After discussing with few people who matter, especially my friends from USA the ladybirds, it was decided I start a school first and then can plan my trip when things settle down here. Another motivation was my daughter Farheena. When talking to me, one fine day she said, 'You people'. Initially I assumed funnily she was referring to grown ups or something like that. It took me sometime to realize that she has decided that she is not one of us. When she says "we people" it is the people in her vocational center with challenge. What can be more hurtful to a mom? How can we change this? Only a inclusive society can make a person with challenge feel no different anyone without extra challenge.

Once I started the project, the old place just started sucking in all my funds. The drains were blocked, most of the things around looked rusted, the floor was rough on the skin, hygiene factor was very low and many more things needed to be settled. Blinded by my dream, I had overlooked a lot of things and also until I moved in some of the problems remained just hidden.
How it looks now.
No matter how much I did, something remained as a pending task needing immediate attention. Not just all my funds which I had kept aside for my tour of USA was sucked in, but also some of Rayyan’s funds which he was setting aside for his wedding. Yet the place did not look good enough for a day-care and preschool. So finally I gave in and looked out for someone who would join hands with me in my venture.

One of my friends, pooled in some money and joined me.  Finally my center, Giggle Garden opened on 15th June. On the first day, 5 parents who had known about the opening of our center walked in for admission. One of them was with a child with Down’s syndrome. 3 parent’s objected to her admission, with just one parent not objecting to it. This was a tough call for me to make, but I did the right thing ethically though it may not be right financially for My Giggle Garden. Today, a year later when the child is making eye contact, greeting me, having food on her own, is playing pretend games and identifying colors with tremendous improvement in her speech, I know I did the right thing. Anyway, being a mom of special needs child, I really did not have an option there. Also the whole project was based to erase the communication of 'You people and we people'. Today, if feel so grateful to the parents that even when her father was transferred, her mother stayed back alone only for her daughter to be in our school even though it was difficult for her with lack of Kannada knowledge.
2 more students joined us and we had another for day-care. I kept working at my job to fund the center and it kept chugging away.  The first major issue that came ahead me was when my friend announced she could not continue due to health issues. She had to back off and I had to return her funds as soon as possible. She had trusted me and invested in the school without any proof or written document. I could
not hold on her payment for long and had to pay her back. Thankfully Rayyan stepped in and helped me return her investment and also make some more improvements in Giggle Garden. He also helped me buy few more required materials and improve the center.
Giggle Garden moved smoothly until another hurdle was thrown my way. I had taken the whole premises with two floors. The school and day-care was on the ground floor and we stayed on the first floor. Due to unavoidable circumstances and marriage in the owner’s family I had to give up my home on the top floor. I had not checked and verified the document properly which was a mistake. No place to go, my family had to shift into an adjacent room to the school temporarily, until we found a place where Farheena could walk into easily. By then I had a sprain and tore my tendons. Not knowing how bad I injured my foot, I walked on it making things worse. I ended up with a foot support and walker. My two employees were on leave for a month. All took its toll on this year's admission. Adding to it, once people with funds and place nearby saw how preschool have good business, competition came up in form of three new schools in our vicinity.
People were skeptical with my choice of having special needs children working on Montessori materials along with regular children. They doubted that I would ever walk and be active with children. I saw the fear of seeing a person with walker in people very clearly. They were doubtful about the safety with my family's presence in the school and there I was with them. I am not in favor of that either.  CCTV is of no use to chase the fear in parents about their loving one's safety. Rayyan stepped in again and we could shift to a flat next door to our school.
Adding to my challenges were parents who would not discuss their plans clearly. I made plans for students investing in manpower and things required, but some of them were in vain. I was making decisions emotionally rather than rationally which was required to make my business successful. Clearly I saw that I was failing as entrepreneur and businesswoman though I was very successful as a teacher. My
students have excellent communication, social, play and academic skills. A two year old is able to lead us in her prayer. Our child who did not utter a word is able to recite rhymes and stories in 8 months’ time in giggle garden. Gigglers are doing great.
I was having tough time without my regular job which I had to give up due to workload, sustaining a new business, paying rent, paying salaries and taking care of things required. I could not ask Rayyan for more
because he was running out of resources as well and I went through terrible guilt. I had no right killing his dreams to pursue mine.
I was regretting few decisions I made, but some though not profitable, I still stand by them. My center will always be open to all students no matter what. Only, hygiene and cleanliness will be a factor that will be decisive. This makes it neither a profitable business nor an NGO or charitable institution. But yet, I have faith that it will work out for me.
But no more falling for temporary admissions, temporary waving of fees, no more temporary day-care facility for those who can afford but take advantage of my trust. Rules will be strictly followed both for school and day-care.

Gigglers are learning and I am the foremost of the Giggler to learn my lesson. It has been stressful for me managing last three months, especially with the excruciating pain in my foot which was debilitating. I was
feeling like a loser though I did not want to show it out. I was wondering whether I made a right decision.  I could not make proper plans nor could I take up proper promotions of Giggle Garden. This is the first time I have crippled both mentally, emotionally and physically by pain. Did I really need this when I was at the peak of my career earning handsomely from the comfort of my home? I am not sure. But we have a
purpose in our lives and I think my purpose of life is somewhere this project.
I started looking out for ways to make this work out and found that a cancer survivor has more challenges in procuring loans and help. Partnership did not work out because they wanted the special children out of
center. Most of them were clearly seeing only $$$$$.  I want our future generation to be different from what I see today. I want people to understand that just because some people have special needs does not make them dangerous or outcasts. So, I stood by my decision. My children have responded beautifully to my own daughter as well as to other's whose needs are a bit special.
Kathleen, my friend, had once mentioned fundraiser for My Giggle Garden which I had not taken up back then. Asking for help has never been easy for me. After a lot of discussion with ladies I trust, I made one of toughest decision of my life and went for a fundraiser to make Giggle Garden a better place. I have to make this better and working or back off which means I lose all and have to start from scratch.  It also means letting down people (especially Rayyan) who have stood by me so far. Nothing in the world would allow me to shut door on the children for whom other doors were shut already. 
Impactguru stepped in and allowed me to raise a fundraiser on their site. I am touched by the gesture of my cancer survivor sisters from across the globe who got it going though they do not have much to spare. This shows the trust they have in my concept and project. This just made Giggle Garden my third child who I will take care of until I am there for Farheena and Rayyan.
Someday, I may build a place of my dream for children where they will enjoy learning. I am settling down as a Smile Farmer and I am going to nourish and nurture My Giggle Garden and grow smiles here.

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