The Tata Global Beverages-supported DARE school has been helping differently-abled children in Munnar acquire valuable skills and sustainable livelihoods for the past 25 years

Muthukumari and Prakash met at school. After graduation they went on to work in the same complex. Their parents thought they made a great couple and suggested they get married. So Muthukumari and Prakash got married and set up home in the misty hills of Munnar in Kerala, India. They started a family — they have a six-year-old boy and an infant daughter — and are determined to live happily ever after.

That would have been a regular story, except for the fact that the lead characters are differently abled. Both were students of DARE (Developmental Activities in Rehabilitative Education), a school that was set up in 1991 with support from Tata Global Beverages (then known as Tata Tea). And the workplace they had in common was the Srishti complex in Munnar, which houses the various initiatives run by Srishti Trust.

“DARE was born out of a dream to set up a school to train differently-abled local kids in motor skills and provide them basic therapy,” says Ratna Krishnakumar, managing trustee of Srishti Trust, on the sidelines of an international conference on disability and learning, hosted by DARE in Munnar to mark its 25th anniversary. “We never imagined it would become such an exciting journey.”

Twenty-five years on, a visit to the Srishti Trust complex in the Nullathanni neighbourhood of Munnar is an uplifting experience filled with happy stories of lives transformed and dreams realised. At each of Srishti’s initiatives to rehabilitate the differently-abled — be it Athulya, the handmade paper unit; Nisarga, the strawberry preserves project; Aranya, the natural dye and textiles unit; Deli, the bakery and confectionery project; or the Garden Project for growing fruits, vegetables and flowers — there’s an air of optimism and a sense of purpose as employees go about their tasks, defying disability and the limitations imposed on them by society.

The Athulya unit makes eco-friendly paper from locally sourced materials such as leaves, flowers, and even waste material

Enabling dreams

Prakash remembers being brought to the DARE School as a young boy sometime in 1991. Born with impaired speech and hearing, a regular school did not seem like a good option for him, and that’s how he arrived at DARE, where a holistic approach to his special needs — from identifying his problem and counselling him and his family to providing therapy and education — saw his confidence and skill sets grow. After graduating from DARE, he started working in the handmade paper-making unit before moving to his current role at Nisarga.

Like Prakash, several underprivileged children have built their lives and livelihoods after graduating from DARE. The school adopts a child-centric approach to dealing with disability, addressing each child and their special needs. Along with speech therapy and physiotherapy, the children are taught life skills, basic reading and writing, fundamentals of mathematics, and arts. They also receive lessons in dance, drama, yoga and meditation for all-round well-being.

To ensure that their parents — most of them plantation workers at Munnar’s tea estates — don’t pull the children out of school for any reason, the school makes them partners in their children’s development. The school also provides a bus service for the children. There are 11 teachers, four attendants, three coordinators and two administrative staff dedicated to the care of 62 children at the school.

Over the last 25 years, 205 children with various disabilities have passed through DARE and found employment either at one of the Srishti projects or in other organisations.

Creative canvas

“It was our duty to provide employment to the young graduates of DARE. Our children don’t normally like to leave Munnar and look for employment outside. That’s why we set up the vocational training centre (VTC) in 1991 to provide them basic training in stationery-making, to ensure that they found something meaningful to do. But we realised that we needed to give more creative outlets to the energy and talent of our young graduates. After all, how long can one make drab brown paper bags and envelopes?” says Mrs Krishnakumar. That thought led to the setting up of Nisarga in 1994.

Accolades for a job well done

  • Kerala state award for commendable services for the cause of the disabled in 1997.
  • FICCI award for training and placement for persons with disability in 1997-98.
  • Business World FICCI-SEDF CSR award for 2007.

When Nisarga tasted initial success in making delicious strawberry jams and preserves, the unit’s ambitions grew and it invested in acquiring quality certifications and better technology. Today, Nisarga’s state-of-the-art facility manufactures thousands of kilos of strawberry jam and preserve, guava jam, plum jam, etc, under the High Range brand.

Nisarga’s success led to the setting up of Aranya, the natural dyes unit, and the handmade paper unit, Athulya, both of which have impressive growth stories to tell.

Athulya has come a long way from the time when associates made standard envelopes and brown paper bags. With contemporary equipment funded by Tata Trusts, the unit today rolls out reams of handmade, environment-friendly paper in rich hues and made from an amazing range of ingredients such as locally grown leaves and flowers, and even elephant poop and tea waste from the surrounding plantations. Athulya supplies stationery to Kannan Devan Hills Plantations, Croma (which orders around 20,000 paper bags every month), and several resorts and hotels in Munnar. “The unit has brought a burst of colour and creativity into the lives of our children,” says Mrs Krishnakumar.

Hues of success

Next door, in the Aranya unit, associates dabble with a multitude of hues and textures as they make gorgeous sarees, stoles and dupattas (long Indian scarves) from fabrics dyed in natural, organic dyes. Over the past couple of decades or so, constant experimentation with dyes and dyeing techniques have helped Aranya build quite a reputation and a market for its products.

The Deli, the baking and confectionery unit, supplies to most of the resorts and hotels in Munnar; Nisarga, which makes and sells jams and preserves was a hit almost as soon as it was set up

Last year, it clocked a turnover of ₹10 million, 60 percent of which came from exports.With guidance from the likes of shibori expert Yoshiko Wada and design inputs from interns of the National Institute of Design, Aranya associates are on a constant learning and upskilling journey, which helps them keep in step with the latest trends in fashion. Aranya now plans a foray into readymade apparel, for which a full-time resource from the National Institute of Fashion Technology will be placed at the Munnar facility to help associates acquire the relevant skills.

However, what makes the Aranya product range special is the innate creativity and innovativeness of its associates. “They perform their best when we let them explore their creativity without imposing too many limitations. They have a natural sense of colour and balance, which comes alive in their unique designs,” says Mrs Krishnakumar.

About DARE and Srishti

The Srishti Trust manages six units in Munnar, Kerala:

  • DARE (Developmental Activities in Rehabilitative Education) is home to 62 children.
    • Children receive speech therapy and physiotherapy.
    • They are taught life skills, reading, writing, mathematics, arts, dance, drama, yoga and meditation.
  • Athulya, the handmade paper unit.
  • Nisarga, the fruit jams and preserves project.
  • Aranya, the natural dye and textiles unit.
  • Deli, the bakery and confectionery project.
  • Garden Project for cultivating fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Another creative outlet for the talent of DARE graduates is the Deli, the baking and confectionery unit. Set up in 2009, the Deli sent its first batch of associates to Mumbai to undergo intensive training in baking skills under award-winning chef Ananda Solomon of Taj President. Ever since, the Deli has been whipping up delicacies such as cakes, pastries, cookies, breads and its famous brownies at a fully-equipped kitchen funded by Tata Global Beverages. The Deli has five outlets in Munnar and also supplies to most of the resorts and hotels there, ensuring a steady stream of income to the unit. Monthly sales at the Deli touch ₹700,000 and at the height of the tourist season, close to 1,000 units of products are sold everyday.

There are many heartwarming stories out of DARE and the Srishti units. Mallika, who works in Aranya, has just sent her daughter to study nursing in Coimbatore; Prakash’s son attends the High Range school in Munnar; Amar Singh, who trained under chef Ananda Solomon, has managed healthy savings by dishing out delicious brownies. Jalaja, who joined the VTC in 1994, is today a supervisor at Athulya, managing the associates and client relationships.

Yet, Srishti sees its work as an unfinished task. It constantly works to increase collaborations with educationists and experts in the field of special education in order to improve the activities at DARE. A creche has been set up within the Srishti complex for the children of associates. A canteen provides fresh food made from vegetables grown in the garden, the project set up to employ the more severely challenged graduates of DARE.

“Our plan for the future is simple. We want to help many more differently-abled children overcome their disability and become confident people who can take responsibility for their own lives, and live with dignity,” sums up Mrs Krishnakumar

— Sangeeta Menon

Dare to dream

Harish Bhat writes how a visit to Munnar, where he attended the 25th anniversary celebrations of DARE, a school for differently-abled children, was at once a moving and an inspiring experience

Munnar, in the high ranges of Kerala, seems like a bit of God’s own heaven. The lush green mountains, with their unending carpet of tea leaves, are a treat to the eyes. The air is clear and fragrant with the freshness of unspoilt nature. The skies are clean and grey at dusk, and the streams that run down the mountains into Munnar town twinkle in the light of the moon.

As we drive into Munnar’s Chokanad tea estate on a full moon night, we are warned of five wild elephants ahead of us. We halt for a few minutes and watch the elephants from a distance. They appear to be enjoying the surroundings, munching on something, and totally undisturbed in their habitat. Moved by the ambience, I think to myself: surely this is the most beautiful sight on earth?

The next morning, however, I was happy to be proven wrong. There was a far more beautiful sight waiting for us. At an event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of DARE (Developmental Activities in Rehabilitative Education), the specially-abled students of this unique institution staged a welcome dance that was more spectacular than anything I had ever seen until then. These were mainly children of plantation workers from the surrounding tea estates. Most of them had special needs and had received training at the DARE school. Yet, when they danced on stage, they suddenly made the world come to vibrant life.

They danced, first, to a Sanskrit hymn, then to a Malayalam song. They carried brightly lit diyas (earthern lamps) in their little hands, and twirled their way fluidly on the stage. They were bright and chirpy, and gorgeously dressed in red, green and gold. They looked straight at all of us in the audience with great confidence, their eyes sparkling with excitement. It must have taken so much courage, yet they made it seem so easy. These children of DARE weaved their way into the music, and right into our hearts.

When I addressed the gathering a little later, I spoke about the incredibly far-reaching impact that DARE has had in the community of the High Range. Over the past 25 years, DARE has helped transform the lives of over 200 specially-abled children, by providing them with special training in various fields and also avenues for employment. By doing so, DARE has also provided the parents and families of these children a unique sense of liberation and joy.

The powerful brands of tea that Tata Global Beverages markets may have given the company its global leadership position, but it is initiatives such as DARE that have given the company its soul. I salute the team of committed people that has made this dream possible:

Dare to dream and dare to fly, Above the mountains,
beyond the sky, What better gift than a life of your own,
Skills that are learnt,
blossomed and grown Dare to hold that trophy with pride,
And dare to take the world in your stride.

(Harish Bhat is brand custodian of Tata Sons and chairman of Tata Global Beverages).