India – December 3 2020

Some years are to win Olympic medals, some years to learn new skills

In a typical year, 17-year-old Manimeghlai would be training for the cycling competition in an upcoming Special Olympics event. But, with the coronavirus, it’s been a year of mostly staying inside the SOS Children’s Village Khajuri Kalan in Central India.

Mani, as her friends call her, made her village and country proud by winning a gold medal in the 500-meter cycling event at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi in 2019.

Though she still cycles around the village, Mani has taken this year to discover new talents, such as tailoring.

“This year has been especially challenging for us,” says Preeti Chauhan, a special educator at the Khajuri Kalan Village, which cares for 104 children, like Mani, who have a diverse range of intellectual abilities.

“The sudden lockdown resulted in only the permanent staff having to look after the children in the village,” adds Ms Chauhan. “The children were restless and could not understand why they could not step out and go to school. We had a tough time explaining to them that this lockdown wasn’t permanent.”

Staff tried different ways to explain the virus to the children, like staging plays and doing special counselling.  “We wanted to allay their fears,” she says.

What has been rewarding is that the changed schedule meant children and young people like Mani got to discover new talents. Mani started behaving more like the elder sibling, teaching younger children yoga and aerobics, and even cycling.

“The most fun however was to see how keenly Mani took up sewing,” says Ms Chauhan. “So many of her siblings got trousers made by her during her sewing practise because that is the last thing she had learnt when the vocational training school was open.

“They were so perfect that the word got around and everyone thronged to her with a request to make them one. Now we can’t wait for her to go back to the school and learn how to make shirts as well so we can complete our dresses,” says Ms Chauhan, chuckling at the thought.

Manimeghlai, who has lived in the children’s village since she was three, seems happy to comply. But she is certainly looking forward to when her cycling coach can return to the village to prepare for the next competition.

Mani practising her sewing skills