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This Mumbai sports academy for disabled kids brings a spring to the steps & a smile

Weekends are something most of us look forward to, but for Urja , they are extra special.

Every Saturday and Sunday, this 10-year-old joins a group of other kids with disabilities at the Santacruz center of the Mumbai-based Shobha Sports Academy for Special Children for a training session.

It's one of the bright spots in her week, says mother Aparna Ashar.

"Urja signed up for the classes four months ago and she loves it. There are a range of indoor activities as well as cycling. She is on the autism spectrum and she had difficulties in balancing earlier. That has improved since with these sessions. She is also attempting activities like kicking a ball, which she could not do previously".

Launched Informally in 2002, the academy is the brainchild of Sahadev Galfhade, who was moved by a desire to help children with disabilities based on his personal experience.

My sister, Shobha, who is now 28 years old, has autism. She really struggled as a child because other kids would not play with her and tease her because she was different. Even people in my family would make fun of her and she was isolated. - Sahadev Galfhade, Founder, Shobha Sports Academy for Special Kids

Little support

When he was older, Galfhade was determined to reach out to kids in similar situations. As someone who was into sports, that was his first choice and undeterred by the lack of support from his family, he decided to try. "I would hear comments like 'he wants to work with mad people'. Even my parents thought I was wasting my time".

He finally found a mentor in his former sports coach whom he turned to for advice. The coach decided to help him set up the initiative and together they began families of kids with disabilities to form a group.

"The families were reluctant at first because they were either afraid or thought their kids were beyond help", recalls Galfhade. "Most of them were from poor economic backgrounds and they were not aware of the importance of sports. They were content to let their kids stay home or wander around."

Galfhade managed to convince them and with his coach's help, he found a venue. Initially he taught for free. Over the years, as word spread, more families with disabled kids started reaching out.

In 2012, he registered Shobha Sports Academy for Special Kids.

Today the academy conducts sessions at various centres across Mumbai and Galfhade has full-time instructors on the job. If the disability is severe, he offers home-based sessions.

Varsha Solanki has opted for home sessions for son Darshan, who has Down syndrome and is on the autism spectrum.

"Sahadev comes to my house three or four times a week and plays badminton, cricket or football with my son. Sometimes he takes him out for a walk. Physical activities are especially important for children with disabilities and because Darshan has autism, he tends to isolate himself".

Darshan has been training with Sahadev for over four years now and the two share a close bond. "Darshan has a big smile on his face every time Sahadev walks in", says Varsha. "He regards him as a friend and is open to his advice. If Sahadev cannot take a session for some reason, he has to call Darshan well in advance and explain why because he looks forward to his arrival a lot!"

Not only Galfhade, but all the coaches here take the trouble to connect with the kids. There is personalized attention given with goals set and progress monitored.

"The teachers and support staff are truly understanding and supportive", says Aparna. "They always make that extra effort to find an activity that your child genuinely enjoys. They are patient and never rush them. Apart from sports, they have activities like dancing, carrom and singing. All this makes it a enjoyable for the kids".

Galfhade would like to include regular swimming sessions. So far, this is limited to kids who live in housing societies with access to pools. "Public pools are not willing to allow kids with disabilities because they think it's risky", says Galfhade. "It is a great activity for these kids, so I hope that mindset changes".

Galfhade is happy that he has been able to fulfil a long-cherished dream, one that is growing to include the world around him.

"I feel like I have achieved something in my life. It feels great that I am able to make a difference in a child's life. Sometimes the payment does not come on time, but those are small issues. I am determined to reach out to as many children as possible".

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