As if it’s not enough to be faced with the challenges of autism, many children are placed in mainstream schools or study at home where they struggle as they feel out of place.
But a school in Parklands, the Learning Vine, offers hope to many children who face stigma and ignorance in their crucial developing years.
Cindy van den Heuwel, founder of the school has spent more than 30 years teaching special education overseas. With two special education degrees under her belt, she is an inspector at overseas schools for the International Baccalaureate, an international educational foundation, and an educational consultant.
When she returned from working overseas, she opened a small school in 2015 to cater for the needs not only of children with autism but children from difficult backgrounds in single-parent households.
“The Learning Vine came about in January 2015, when it was seen that there was a huge need for a learning centre for children who don’t fit into the one-size of mainstream education,” says Ms Van den Heuwel.
“We became an Impak Tutor Centre in April 2015 and can accommodate children from Grade R to Grade 12. We are not an ordinary tutor centre, in fact we pride ourselves on being extraordinary. We focus on educating the whole child and on making learning as fun as possible.”
As word spread of the work she was doing in her NPO-registered school, the school grew and she recently moved, for the third time, into larger premises on Parklands Main Road.
“We were previously at two different venues in Table View but while our neighbours there thought we were doing a great thing, they didn’t think the school, which now has 100 pupils, should be in a residential area,” she says.
Now located in a mixed business/ residential area, it’s home during the day to pupils with a range of learning difficulties. Many, as Ms Van den Heuwel says, were placed in mainstream schools where they floundered, but since coming to her school, she says there has been a list of success stories.
She mentions one of her pupils, who was in and out of other schools as a problem child and, since starting at the Learning Vine, his dream has grown from getting his matric to becoming an electrician to studying electrical engineering at university.
Another child, with autism, who struggled at a mainstream school has found a comfortable place in the school where he is happy and has adapted well, says his grandmother Marie du Toit, who lives in the Table View area.
Ms Van den Heuwel says there are many autistic pupils in the area and surrounds who battle to find a school
“They come here from as far as Philadelphia, Atlantis and Richwood with some children from Edgemead and others from the more immediate area.
“Many of the Parklands kids are latchkey kids whose parents are immigrants from Zimbabwe, the DRC, Malawi and Mozambique, and, being strangers in a new country, found it difficult to adapt to their different surroundings and became problem children,” she says.
Taking in children from the age of six years up to 20 years offers its own challenges, says Ms Van den Heuwel. The most difficult for her is struggling to pay a hefty rental and also to foot the bills for paying a staff of 10 specialised teachers.
She says another financial burden is covering the costs for many of the children whose parents cannot afford the school fees.
“Between 50 to 60 percent of the children’s parents cannot afford the fees and some don’t pay at all while others pay a reduced bill of what they can afford. So we really need donations, of stationery. We also used to feed the kids a full meal but we can’t afford it anymore so it’s just sandwiches now,” she says.
She adds that many of the children don’t have a place to go after school. “I couldn’t let them run around the streets in the afternoon so we often act as an after-school facility. You don’t know what their home situations are – it is heartbreaking to see some of the circumstances they live in.”
The school follows a CAPS-registered home-school programme and Ward 113 councillor Joy McCarthy, speaking at last week’s Greater Table View Action Forum (GTAF)
meeting said she had thrown her weight behind the school and what it is achieving, and is also trying to get it registered as an independent school.
GTAF members also added their support to the school and said they would make it one of their dedicated donor projects.
One of Ms Van den Heuwel’s dreams, given the space she now has, is to create a fully equipped sensory room for pupils with autism.
“We are looking for large bean bags, a lava lamp, hula hoops, a swing chair, wooden blocks, the plastic tunnel/worm you can crawl through, ropes, a sensory beam, toy cars, Lego, any toy construction stuff like Meccano, a vacuum cleaner and plastic tables and chairs,” she says.
If you can help, visit the Learning Vine’s Facebook page.