“It is overwhelming to see the parents and teachers with tears of joy when they see what their child or student can accomplish,” says Arun Kumar, an IBM practice area lead and winner of a 2016 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award for his work with the Spastics Society of Karnataka (SSK), in Bangalore, India.
Since 2013 Arun has volunteered and coordinated other IBM volunteers at SSK—a non-governmental organization in the Indian state of Karnataka that provides a comprehensive set of diagnostic and intervention services for people with cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual and learning disabilities.
In India, the word "spastic" is used neutrally and not as a pejorative; several organizations there that support people with neuro-muscular and developmental disabilities include the word in their name.
IBM first began work with SSK in 2007 by helping to equip the organization’s Assistive Technology Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities; an effort also supported by PACER Center in the United States.
Arun had been a volunteer at SSK, conducting one-on-one teaching lessons with students, before accepting management of the IBM-SSK relationship when the previous coordinator left IBM.
“I had joined an IBM On Demand Community volunteer team teaching basic computer and life skills to the students, who are generally between 13 and 15 years old,” says Arun. “I am a long time IBMer, and in my career I faced a few challenges that I was proud to overcome. But the day I stepped into a class room of 10 differently-abled children at SSK, I realized my accomplishments at work were small compared to what these students can accomplish.”
Arun recruits and coordinates IBM volunteers to participate every Saturday for about 24 weeks a year in teaching computer and life skills to SSK students.
“It has been tough sometimes since the time commitment is significant, but the same set of volunteers do not need to be there every weekend, so there is some flexibility,” he says. “The program's sustenance is only because of the volunteers who are involved, and their commitment is incredible.”
The program consists of a basic class that lasts for about 12 weeks, including an exam and certification ceremony, and an advanced class that is also about 12 weeks. Pre-class meetings happen on Friday to match volunteers with the class the next day and the topic they need to prepare. The actual class at SSK is on Saturday from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM.
The volunteers don’t receive any special training in how to teach differently abled students.
“The speed and pace of our communication depends completely on the comprehension ability of the students,” Arun says. “We’ve had students in our basic class with a very long learning curve. Most of the students are able to use the computer by themselves, though slowly. It takes effort to be in the moment and help the students out—and every one of our volunteers are doing a fabulous job at this.”
“I have setup a wiki to share information with IBM volunteers,” he says. “I keep looking for new material for the students. For example, I added modules on interviewing skills, and recently introduced a ten minute story reading session to improve reading skills.”
And after the 12 week period of Saturday lessons is over, there is a certification ceremony to celebrate the students’ accomplishments.
At the ceremony, in front of an audience of teachers, parents, other students, IBM volunteers and an invited IBM executive, each student presents something about the topic they learned. This year, one presentation consisted of students acting and role-playing what they had learned about internet safety.
It’s usually a very emotional event.
“I have managed eight certification programs—two per year—and I’ve been overwhelmed by the love and affection of the students, teachers and the parents,” Arun says. “This is what keeps me going year after year.”
IBM Community Grants have helped SSK acquire desktop publishing system, and the team is looking to place students who have been trained on the system with local print shops.
While Arun doesn’t always know what happens to his students when they leave SSK, he is aware of one of his wheelchair-bound students being hired by an IT company as an administrative assistant.
He also recalls a session with the students on setting short and long term goals. One student had a passion for cartoons—his long term goal was to be an animator—so the volunteers suggested he do research on the internet to learn how to meet his goal, which Arun says resulted in a fabulous plan of steps to take, including attending institutions to get certified.
“I met him one year later at SSK and asked him about his progress,” says Arun. “He put on a brave face and said he had to alter his long term goal when he learned the cost of training was beyond his father’s means. What really impressed me was his realization that he did not want his father to bear a financial burden. I believe this young man is going to figure out how to achieve goals, with self-sufficiency and confidence.”
Arun’s commitment to SSK and its students is time consuming, yet he says “It is important for me to help uncover the potential in the students and have them face the world with dignity. I am most satisfied when I’m in class at SSK at 9:45AM every Saturday morning.”
Arun R. Kumar is among 14 other IBM teams and individuals who are recipients of the twelfth annual IBM Volunteer Excellence Award. The award is recognition from IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty, and is the highest form of global volunteer recognition given by the company to employees.
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