Waterparks, football and more special needs fun in Dubai
The concept is simple: free activities for children in any predicament, from those with special needs to kids burdened with an illness that prevents them from going to school, or even those with a vulnerable family life. That’s the idea behind the Funday Sundays initiative, which aims to help local kids relax and have fun.
There are a host of weekly activities on offer, including visits to Ski Dubai, playing games at Soccer Circus, splashing around at Wild Wadi or watching films at CineStar. The Sunday activities are becoming hugely popular, and now attract between 30 and 70 children to each event.
Of course, dealing with large groups of kids requires helpers – lots of them. ‘I usually need one and a half volunteers per child, so each child gets one-on-one attention,’ explains Lola Lopez, the brains behind Funday Sundays. Deciding to get involved, I call one morning to volunteer my time; Lola picks up the phone with a hoarse voice. I’m a little embarrassed to have woken her up. Perhaps she was out last night partying? Far from it – Lola spends her weeks helping others. She explains she spent the previous night sending aid to Pakistan to help those affected by the earthquake. Three and a half years ago, she quit the job that initially brought her to Dubai and started her own charity. ‘I collected clothes and sent them to Africa,’ she says. ‘Every week I had to pack clothing. More and more volunteers would come. They would see my status on Facebook and people would turn up to help. I realised there are a lot of people here in Dubai that want to do good things.’
When I arrive at the Funday Sunday session at Soccer Circus in Mirdif City Centre, Lola explains she’s expecting more than 30 special-needs children, and I’m one of about 30 volunteers from all nationalities. I meet Annette Paretzmann from Denmark, who’s been in Dubai two and a half years, ‘I’m a housewife,’ says Annette. ‘I have lots of free time, and this is a great way to spend it.’ Fellow volunteer Suzanne Kazan, from Switzerland, has been volunteering regularly since she arrived in Dubai three years ago. ‘It’s important for special-needs children to be social and not feel isolated,’ says Suzanne, who also helps out with animal rescue work, beach cleaning and food aid.
The friendly volunteers make me feel immediately at ease: it’s almost like a social outing, and Dubai newcomer Claire Hopkins explains it’s a great way to make new friends. ‘It’s the best way to meet like-minded people,’ she explains. ‘I originally found Funday Sundays after a bit of research on the internet.’
Kids start to arrive, and they’re excited. Lola and the volunteers split them into groups, and we start teaching them how to play. Some are more able than others, but the atmosphere is electric, regardless of ability: volunteers shout encouragement and cheer loudly as the kids kick balls at targets and floating lights. ‘These games are hugely educational,’ explains Soccer Circus manager JC Fernando, from Holland. ‘We have children as young as two in here and adults as old as 70.Giving these facilities for free is the least we can do for these kids. Plus, it’s great exercise.’ In terms of the amount of energy used, he explains that a full round on the centre’s interactive games is the equivalent of running three miles.
Mini Calleja, one of the volunteers, grabs me and we team up to look after our group of four girls. I’m blown away by her enthusiasm and her contagious energy – she’s only been volunteering since the summer and reminds me that all is required is a bit of spare time and dedication. ‘We’ve got bronze, silver and gold volunteers,’ says Lola. ‘When I’m doing an event with special-needs kids, I pick those who are most reliable. I need people that can help me with these children; their safety is non-negotiable.’ The kids love it – they’re smiling, active and enjoying the attention. ‘The more volunteers I can recruit, the more projects I know we can take on, because we’ll have the man power for it,’ says Lola.
As the session draws to a close, we volunteers feel as though we’ve done something valuable with our Sunday morning. I’m pumped, and I can’t wait to help with more Funday Sunday projects. For info, see www.fundaysunday.ae. To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org (04 432 1876)