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Acrobat instructor brings people with disabilities to new heights

IG: @pitublazquez

IG: @pitublazquez

At Pitu Blazquez’s acrobatics school in Argentina, students are hanging from trapezes, walking on balance beams and cooling down with a stretch. But the school is a little different from what you might expect: it offers free classes for people with disabilities.

“These people are doing something incredible, which is extremely difficult, being five meters high and giving their soul and their art,” Blazquez told AJ+.

People who live with disabilities are a marginalized community in Argentina; most do not have medical insurance and only one in 10 are employed.

“Nothing is built with disabled people in mind. They don’t think [about it],” one of Blasquez’s students said.

Through offering people with disabilities classes free of charge, Blazquez hopes to give them a chance to engage in an activity they otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to. Instead of specifically setting aside sessions for people with disabilities, he integrates them with other students in class to help everyone understand the challenges these people face.

“It teaches my other students to work with people who can’t walk, people who can’t see, but can do a lot of things,” said Blasquez.


“What I see inside them is a fight, is a courage that is an example for everyone. It’s very rewarding.”

 

NYC restaurant hires grandmothers to recreate taste of home

Hawa Jimiez hails from Liberia. She used to work a cleaning job, but now, she’s a chef at a restaurant in Staten Island, where she cooks up Liberian dishes and shares a taste of her country with the New York City crowd.

 

“I love cooking,” said Hawa Jimiez, a Liberian grandmother.

 

The restaurant she works at is called Enoteca Maria. Originally serving just Italian cuisine, Jody Scaravella, an Italian himself, started the restaurant when his mother and grandmother passed away, and he was left missing the comfort food he had grown up with.

 

Scaravella then put an advertisement out for Italian “nonnas” – or grandmothers – to cook at the restaurant. The response was overwhelming; seeing the concept take off and the joy it brought to diners knowing the food they’re eating is as authentic as they come, Scaravella began hiring “nonnas” from other countries too.

 

The main kitchen is staffed by at least one Italian “nonna”; downstairs, grandmothers from other countries take turns on a rotating basis, cooking up a storm when it’s their evening to shine.

 

On one night, the hearty dishes of Liberia – courtesy of Jimiez – might be on the menu. The next, diners may have their pick among Polish, Syrian or Nigerian specialties.

 

Since 2007, Enoteca Maria has proven itself to be a popular concept for diners longing for a simpler time; it’s also giving grandmothers employment in a skill they’ve honed with experience – dishing up food that’s straight from the heart.

Trees, not fees: School in India encourages parents to plant tree saplings instead of paying tuition

A primary school in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh is making education more inclusive while raising awareness for environmental concern: it’s asking parents not to pay tuition, but to plant trees instead. For more on #TreesNotFees check out our blog, 

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The initiative was set up by local professionals and business owners in response to the rising unaffordability of education. Little of the Indian government’s budget is allocated to education, leaving parents responsible for forking out high fees. As a result, many children cannot afford to go to school, and the consequences are evident: an education report in 2014 found that nearly 20% of children in grade two cannot recognize the numbers between one and nine.

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While not a means to an end, this school’s initiative is opening its classroom doors to children who otherwise would not have access to education, therefore giving them a chance at a brighter future and raising the country’s literacy rate.

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So far, the school has received an overwhelming response, and 700 saplings have been planted across the village over the last year.

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At the same time, parents being encouraged to plant trees is also educating the next generation on the importance of environmental care. This is especially needed in India, where air pollution is becoming a worsening problem.

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It is hoped that this school’s initiative will inspire others to follow suit to promote heightened accessibility of education for all and awareness of the country’s environmental issues.

Second Chances

Janet here owns her own floristry business and sells a beautiful array of flowers. Little would anyone guess that, as a side fact, Janet is an ex-offender.

Janet’s flower shop stemmed from an interest which then later blossomed into a career, mind the puns, with the help of “Startup”. Based in the UK, the charity Startup offers what very few public systems do - a belief that prisoners, too, have great potential and can thrive as entrepreneurs in their own right. The work that Startup had done have significantly reduced recidivism by having ex-offenders turn towards entrepreneurialism as opposed to back towards a criminal system.

In an interview with the BBC, Juliet Hope, the founder of Startup, says “They [the prisoners] have faced that, come out, and want to turn their lives around.”  Juliet believes everyone deserves a second chance - we couldn’t agree more.

This concept isn’t limited to the UK, or Startup’s work. The LEAP (Ladies Empowerment Action Program) (Instagram handle: @leapforladies) in the US also works for a similar cause. Entrepreneurial skills are shared with prisoners, especially women, to encourage them to pursue their dreams - not just with the right tools but the right support.

We should never judge anyone based only on their past or background, as Juliet says, everyone deserves a chance and has potential to achieve. More on their work on their site

Image Credits: BBC

NYC personal trainer empowers the disabled through strength

Tom Clement goes to the gym twice a week for an hour each time. He works primarily on upper body strength, emerging from the gym stronger with every session.

But Clement is not your average gym goer. To begin with, he’s well into his sixties; he’s also been in a wheelchair for most of his life since falling off a roof and severing his spinal cord. For the past 15 years, Clement has been a regular at Ned Norton’s Warriors on Wheels gym, a training facility catered to the most marginalized of communities in the world of fitness: people living with disabilities.

Named one of the CNN Top Heroes in 2014, Norton, 58, has been running non-profit organization Warriors on Wheels for over 20 years. Formerly a competitive power lifter, a three-time finisher of the NYC Marathon and a fitness trainer with 35 years of professional experience, Norton has found passion in bringing what he loves most ­– fitness – to the lives of those who otherwise never get to experience beating a personal best.

“I never worry about what they can’t do,” said Norton. “I worry about what they can do, and make them as independent and capable as possible.”

 

It all started when Norton was managing a gym and training athletes back in 1988. A football player he was training expressed concern for a friend who had been left paraplegic after an accident. He asked Norton if he could train him at the gym and help him recover not just physically, but also psychologically. Tailoring a program for his friend with the help of his doctor, Norton began training him and saw rapid progress in him within six months.

Now, Norton trains more than 120 people every week. His clients are affected by a wide range of disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and vision impairment. The gym is located in Albany, New York, on the fourth floor of a public housing project high rise. The Albany Housing Authority donates the space to him so he doesn’t pay rent, and Norton’s side jobs, support from private donors as well as regularly held fundraising events help keep the project going. Some of the money goes towards the state’s transport authority, which provides STAR, or Special Transportation at Request, to arrange buses that bring people with disabilities to and from the Warriors on Wheels gym.

Norton charges a rate of $10 for 10 visits, but many of his clients subsist on welfare and disability payments, making the fee difficult to afford. In fact, just over 30 percent are able to pay. But Norton is happy to waive this fee, believing that everyone should have access to his training regardless of financial ability.

“If they can pay, fine, but I don’t really keep track of those who don’t,” Norton said. “Most of the people I work with are on very limited incomes.”

 

Clients at Warriors on Wheels use adaptive equipment that has been specially designed by Norton and his team to facilitate improvements in strength and conditioning. Traditional machines like the shoulder press and bench press have been modified, and the seats are cut off from multi-stations, which includes a pec deck, lat pull down cable and preacher curl, so that those in wheelchairs can use them too.

Jamal Burgess is autistic and has been coming to the Warriors on Wheels gym for over 15 years.

“The repetitive motion is good for him,” Norton said of his swift punches as his laced up boxing gloves hit the heavy bag.

“I love it here. I like to work out with Ned,” said Burgess.

Working out at Warriors on Wheels have led clients to see more than just an improvement in their physical health. Norton says many have gone on to find employment, drive again and pursue their interests without allowing their disabilities to get in the way.

 

Clement thanks Norton for helping him live a full life and increasing his ability to maintain the stamina of everyday work.

"The physical benefits are obvious. People have an easier time getting in and out of wheelchairs or opening heavy doors,” said Norton. “The psychological benefits are even more significant. There's a feeling of accomplishment, of self-confidence. The program makes people more independent."

Photos: CNN

 

 

Inmates find puppy love in women’s prison

Ellen Dennett’s life as an inmate at Fraser Valley Institution for Women at Abbottsford, British Columbia isn’t what you imagine being behind bars to be like: she spends a couple of hours each day taking care of dogs while their owners are away at work.

Dennett is part of the Doghouse program, a collaboration between the prison and Langley Animal Protection Society (LAPS). Through Doghouse, inmates who are recognized for their good behavior work together to run a dog daycare. More than 150 women have benefitted from the Doghouse program.

"All day long, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night, these women are feeding, exercising, scooping poop, washing muddy paws. And they work really, really hard," program manager Alicia Santella says.

Through Doghouse the women are able to learn work ethic skills that would be valuable in any job. Many of the women who have left this program look for jobs specifically in this industry, finding that working with dogs gives them solace.

"They don't look at you as an inmate," says Dennett, who was convicted for second-degree murder. "They don't know the horrible crime I did. They love you just the way you are. The good stuff, the bad stuff, they don't care."

A program like Doghouse that entrusts responsibilities to inmates that feel they have been shut off from society. This is important in empowering them, giving hope that everyone has it in them to engage with the communities around them.

For Dennett, working with dogs has put her on a path for a kinder, calmer life after prison.

"I know we're not supposed to have a good time, that we're not supposed to laugh with the dogs, but that's why this is here — to help us cope with what we've done and to get back on track, and to move on with whatever life I have left."

Children affected by autism spectrum disorders find solace at Toys R Us’s “quiet hour”

To kids affected by autism spectrum disorders, bright lights and loud noises can be painfully overwhelming. That’s why multinational chain retailer Toys R Us’s newly introduced “quiet hours” are making a huge difference to these children and their families.

In November, Toys R Us stores across the UK piloted an effort to open one hour earlier as part of a pre-Christmas event. Lights dimmed, music was switched off and announcements were withheld for the event, allowing customers to browse toys in a calm environment.

“Making slight adjustments to stores and creating a ‘quiet’ shopping period allows children and young adults to experience the fun in a toy shop regardless of their disability,” the chain’s marketing director said.

The one-off initiative was well-received by the community and many are calling for this to be done more regularly.

One mother of an autistic child said on Facebook that the event was “brilliant”, and she “had no idea what a difference low-lighting could make”. Another remarked a “complete change in behavior” of her son and thanked the retailer for their inclusivity.

Toys R Us is not the first to head such an event. UK supermarket giant Asda in Manchester Fort began a “quiet hours” initiative for shoppers affected by autism, and inspired eight other outlets to do the same. Toys R Us stores in America, where the retailer is based, is also looking into this.

Launching a “quiet hours” initiative costs little to shops, but simply lowering noise and turning down the lights can make a world of a difference to shoppers affected by autism. Toys R Us’s efforts are a start, and we hope to see more stores around the world doing the same.

Art-through-pods fights homelessness with art in Oak Park, California

Rapid gentrification in the neighborhood of Oak Park, California, has exacerbated the homelessness problem in the area, prompting residents Aimee Phelps and Kevin Greenberg to take action with their creative project, Art-through-Pods.

Concerned at the growing number of people sleeping outside on the conrete, Phelps, who is a local artist, decided to take action. With some tubing, plastic cardboard, wheels and a matress pad, all wrapped up in swirls and a striking shade of green, the Art-through-Pods project began.

“The idea is that we can build these pods so people aren’t sleeping on the sidewalk and sleeping on the street, but we also cover them with art,” said Greenberg. “So instead of just leaving them with shopping carts and blue tarps in the alley, you’re looking at this.”

Greenberg, a welder, modified Aimee’s initial pod designs, changing its shape to be small enough to fit on a sidewalk, in a parking spot and down a bike lane, but big enough for two adults. He also added welded steel, plywood and switched out bicycle wheels for wheelchair parts for a sturdier structure.

Each pod has a customized design: one is emblazoned with a replica of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, and another is lavender with delicate orchid patterns.

The pair’s project has gained much attention in the local community. Phelps receives letters on her porch from people requesting for pods, and people come up to her asking how they can get on the list.

While these creative pods don’t provide a means for permanent housing, they are offering the homeless a place to store their belongings in the day and a shelter to sleep in at night. They’re also showing them that their plights aren’t going unheard in the community.

"I can't even explain how happy it makes us to go out and give these pods away to people who need it and deserve it and shouldn't be sleeping in alcoves and forgotten," said Phelps.

Scrooge the Ticket: Residents in Ontario town to donate instead of paying parking fines

Traffic police in the Ontario town of Innisfil are inviting drivers to “scrooge the ticket” this holiday season by donating to a local food bank instead of paying off their parking tickets.

Last year, the first “Scrooge the Ticket” initiative was a huge success, collecting over USD 1,200 worth of toys, food and gift cards. This year, Innisfil is running it again: up till December 9, those who have been slapped with a parking ticket can opt to bring items of an equal or greater value than their fine to the town hall. Donations go to the Innisfil Community Church’s Christmas Outreach Program.

Innisfil isn’t the first to implement such an initiative. In America, cities in Colorado, Virginia and Kentucky have allowed parking violators to pay their fines with a donation to the food pantry.

The inventive idea makes a not-so-fun activity – paying a parking ticket fine – a gentle reminder that we can all do our part to contribute to the lives of those who are less fortunate. Residents who haven’t received a parking ticket are welcome to donate as well.

“No one likes to get a parking ticket, but this is a thoughtful way to have our residents give generously to a great cause leading into the holiday season,” Mayor Gord Wauchope said.

Skateboarding: Learning through Play

“Skateboarding is very special to me. I love it because I feel like flying, like a bird,” says 12-year- old Freshta, who lives in Kabul, Afghanistan. “It gives me the feeling of freedom!”

Skateistan is an NGO that works with low-income youth like Freshta in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa, providing them education and leadership training alongside skateboarding instruction. More than 1,500 youth aged 5-17 benefit from Skateistan’s programs weekly.

Freshta was enrolled in Skateistan’s “skate school” as part of the NGO’s “Back to School” program. The program takes in children who do not have access to school, guides them through an accelerated learning program and then helps them register into the public schooling system.

Skateistan’s unique approach to youth empowerment has seen great success in inspiring children to learn through play. In many developing countries, safe spaces for children are few and far between. Children – especially girls like Freshta – are rarely given the chance to engage in sports, so Skateistan’s work is significant in empowering them and encouraging them to be active.

Now, Freshta is successfully enrolled as a grade seven student at public school and aspires to be a doctor when she grows up. She continues to engage in Skateistan’s other programs, “Skate and Crate”, which combines art lessons with skateboarding sessions, and “Youth Leadership”, where students are taught how to be forward-thinking global citizens.