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Kyriakon School: Guiding special needs students toward acceptance

Teresa Yovela Tio

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Tue, February 4, 2020  /  03:06 pm
Kyriakon School: Guiding special needs students toward acceptance

Built in 1996, Kyriakon School offers integrated education and therapy to students with special needs, mainly cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette syndrome and combinations of them. (JP/Teresa Yovela Tio)

“I saw Victor raise his head today; it makes me really happy,” Untje Gunadisastra smiled as she chatted recently with Kris Sri Rahayu and The Jakarta Post. 

Untje is the founder of Kyriakon School for Special Needs Children in South Jakarta, while Kris is the principal. 

Responding with a huge smile, Kris explained that Victor, one of their high school students, has autism and would look down most of the time. Autistic children usually have difficulties making eye contact and have very short attention spans. 

“We appreciate their progress one step at a time,” Kris said.  

Built in 1996, Kyriakon School offers integrated education and therapy to students with special needs, mainly cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette syndrome and combinations of them.

“Kyriakon provides a full-day program [9 a.m. to 4 p.m.], with an upgraded version of the government’s curriculum, ranging from playgroup to high school,” Untje explained. “We also have a workshop class for those who have graduated from school.” 

This workshop class consists of activities such as cooking, music, art and painting, which they were happily doing when we visited. The students are also taught daily life skills in a program called Activity Daily Living (ADL), where they learn how to shower, groom, brush teeth, put on clothes, tidy their rooms and even making beds and ironing. 

“They have to be able to help themselves and others,” Untje insisted. “Here, everybody likes to help. There’s one who likes to tidy up. He would stack all the chairs, even if someone is sitting on it. Another one likes to close doors. Another would turn off the lights over and over. It’s always surprising, but we are all learning together.”

Despite graduating from school, most of these students’ conditions are severe, which means that they have limited abilities. “Even though it’s already quite an achievement if they can just take care of themselves, we still want them to maximize their abilities and improve their quality of life too.” 

These graduated students have tried several types of jobs before, like cooking and selling food, but their abilities are so limited that they couldn’t fulfill the demands. 

“They have also tried making greeting cards, but it took them almost a whole day to finish a single card. So it’s a long process,” Untje explained as Kris laid out several cards on the table, each one decorated with shapes made of leftover cloth. 

According to Kris, one of the things students with special needs often face is being underestimated, whether by the world, or even by their parents. “Some parents care about them, others don’t. It’s not that they don’t have the money. They just choose to prioritize using it for their normal children, which is very common in Indonesia.” 

Not being able to contribute to their families’ income is also something these students understand and feel helpless about. 

Untje, whose own son Gerry has cerebral palsy, recalled what being able to make money meant to her son. “He once told his dad ‘Sorry, I can’t help by working’,” she recounted. “But being able to create scarves with Terartai changed that. He was so happy. I helped him open a bank account so he could see the printed book and the amount he’s able to make.” 

Terartai is a scarf business the students made with the help of 27-year-old Amanda Maringka, who volunteers at school. They would design and color pictures on paper and then Amanda would print them on scarves and market them online. For every scarf purchased, these students receive a 20 percent royalty. 

“Many parents who used to underestimate their children were also surprised by the money their children made,” Kris revealed. “They weren’t expecting the amount.” 

Pointing to a sample of the communication board used by the students, Untje told the story of how Gerry led them to its founder, Rosemary Crossley of the Anne McDonald Center in Melbourne, Australia. Crossley is an author and advocate for disability rights and facilitated communication. She was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1986. 

Sam (second right), 26, a Kyriakon workshop student, uses his iPad to communicate with teacher Ratmi (left), and a volunteer, Amanda, as he chose colors for his drawing.Sam (second right), 26, a Kyriakon workshop student, uses his iPad to communicate with teacher Ratmi (left), and a volunteer, Amanda, as he chose colors for his drawing. (JP/Teresa Yovela Tio)

“The one thing Rosy likes to point out is, ‘If you’re not talking, it doesn’t mean you don’t understand anything’,” Untje said. “Especially in Indonesia, children still have to talk to be considered able.”

“Back in the days when we did not have these communication boards, we’d have to constantly guess what they wanted. They couldn’t express what they wanted to say.”

The use of these communication boards is simple. Teachers would hold the students’ elbow, arm, or wrist to support them as they point to letters on the board and spell words. It is slow but effective. 

Untje also highlighted that many of the students feel lonely and need to socialize, especially with those other than teachers. “You know, Kris, when we entered the class earlier, Derrick asked: ‘What did you come here for?’ and ‘What are you writing about?’” said Untje excitedly, pointing out that the students don’t always get a lot of visitors their age. 

“If they are well behaved and understood, they will be more accepted in the world. So we teach them to have good character. We want them to be able to go to events, dine with family outside, go to restaurants because children with special needs are often left at home by their family.” 

Throughout the 24 years Kyriakon has operated, it has successfully helped many students improve their quality of life, including many who are studying in universities or are working in companies. 

Untje remembered when Alvent, a former student with a mild case of autism who is currently enrolled at Diponegoro University Medical School, came to visit, asking to learn how to tie his shoelaces. “It’s like they are puzzles, missing little pieces here and there. Just like us, we have our own tics. We can’t be 100 percent perfect.” 

However, despite the ongoing efforts to provide better education and therapy, both Untje and Kris are already concerned about their next "big assignment": How will the students continue to live when their parents aren’t around anymore?

“I’m almost 70 and I started thinking about what will happen to Gerry when I’m not here,” Untje admitted. “Well, I don’t know yet. We are still waiting for a miracle. Hopefully, there will be a solution soon.” (kes)

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The writer is an intern at The Jakarta Post

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