Chennai's Mitr Cafe has grown to include the larger world
If you are looking to hear some soulful renditions of songs by A R Rahman or Western rock is more up your street, head to the Special Needs Mitr Cafe in Besant Nagar, Chennai on Sundays. This is a social occasion where families gather for fun activities like storytelling, pottery-making, Zumba, to name just a few.
The cafe was started in 2015 by a group of parents who came together to form Special Child Assistance Network (SCAN). SCAN is a support group of parents of children with disabilities like autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome, intellectual disability, Dyslexia, ADHD, etc.
The idea was to create a network of friends and a space where our children could be free and express themselves without judgement. When it opened, I didn't have any idea of all the different activities that we would end up with. I just intuitively knew that such a centre would be of value. - Vimal Balachander, Founder, Mitr Cafe
And a lovely, unique space it certainly is. From drum circle sessions to musical evenings featuring children with autism, every Sunday is packed with something exciting and unique.
Food plays a big part on these occasions and there is a core group of food volunteers putting much thought into it. People often volunteer to bring food to the cafe as well. When Mitr Cafe started, there was a lot of focus on getting the kids to cook, serve and do the billing, as a means of developing life skills in them.
Now, these activities are left open to children who are interested in preparing food and serving to customers. And there are quite a few love to be a part of this. Like Arya, who loves to mix and serve bhel puri, and Anirudh, always willing to lend a hand when it comes to squeezing out sweet lime juice.
For many families, these are not-to-be-missed evenings. While the travel time makes it hard to be there every week, there are many who make sure they attend once a month.
Jayanthi, a parent, loves the connections she has made with the larger community thanks to Mitr Cafe.
"We have been regulars since April 2016. I love the concept of our kids being part of the cafe as cooks, waiters, cashiers and customers. It has helped us build a strong positive bonding between ourselves to support each other for other workshops, seminars, inclusion activities and spread awareness."
Over the years Mitr Cafe has become a truly inclusive space involving the larger neighbourhood of friends, families, neighbours, and even curious bystanders.
Balachander says many friends of parents in the group, as well as their children, who support by contributing food and helping out with events.
"One such family recently moved out of Chennai - and often call to say that all of them, including their teenage daughters, are missing Mitr CafÃ©!"
Festivals are major occasions to celebrate here, with the Diwali Mela a regular feature as well as Dandiya. These again bring the larger community together, helping to forge new connections and strengthen bonds.