Your six-year-old son inspired you to start Reaching U. Can you tell us about him?
We first found out Rio had special needs when he was six months old. One evening after his bath, he suddenly went blue, floppy and lifeless. We were terrified and rushed him to hospital. By the time we got there he’d actually recovered but, after that first time, the seizures continued on a daily basis. We took him to Great Ormond Street Hospital in the UK but still it took about four years of investigations to find out that he has a rare chromosomal abnormality. While Rio doesn’t actually look as though he has special needs, he has mobility and communication problems and is a slow learner. He can also behave in an unusual way and often gets stared at. We’ve even experienced people trying to take his photograph.
How did you deal with it?
It made us very uncomfortable in the beginning. Rio didn’t like it either. But we realised these people weren’t acting maliciously – they just weren’t used to seeing children with special needs. And I could relate to that, because the first few times I took Rio to school (he attends the Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre) I was terrified. I’d always imagined myself having a son who would play rugby with me, or be a triathlete or something – the kind of son most fathers have. I never dreamed I’d be taking my boy to a special needs school. But once I got used to it, I realised that these children are wonderful. They live in the present, with very little concept of the past and the future. They are happy – and the school’s atmosphere is so positive.
And then you started Reaching U?
Yes, in 2006, Delphine, my wife, and I decided that Dubai had given us a great deal and we wanted to give something back to the community – and Rio was our starting block. I started training special needs children in my company’s gymnasiums. The idea has always been about getting special needs kids out from behind closed doors and into the community. I wanted them to be with mainstream people – and I wanted mainstream people to be with them.
So what happened next?
Some of my clients from work said they wanted to help, so I suggested they sponsored training sessions for more children. It worked really well. The next step was taking the project out of doors. We’re based in The Village Mall, right next to Jumeirah Open Beach, and I wanted to make use of that. I did some research online and discovered some wheelchairs that you can actually take into the water. My clients raised some funds and we bought six of them. After that, we started our weekly Thursday afternoon sessions on the beach, which are very popular. We have a team of volunteers and all the special needs centres are involved. We all just get onto the sand and into the water and have great fun.
How do the kids react?
They love it. We have one lad who comes down – he’s 16 and in a wheelchair, he has Cerebral Palsy (CP) – and before we started the sessions, he hadn’t been to the beach in nine years! It was very difficult for his parents because he’s a big lad and mobility is a huge issue. But we all pitch in and he gets so much out of it.
What’s your philosophy?
The aim is to get the kids having so much fun that the health benefits from the exercises they’re doing aren’t even a consideration. We want them to enjoy themselves first and foremost. And, of course, we want to improve awareness of special needs in the community by integrating these children through our activities. In our gym sessions, we had a little girl with CP recently who loved boxing. So we did lots of pad work training with her. All the repetitive movement and stability exercises had her coming on in leaps and bounds. But she just had a blast. To her, it was all fun and games.
How can people get involved with Reaching U?
Just get in touch and volunteer your time. We’re not about raising money. We’re about getting people together and helping out. Anyone can write a cheque – but actually giving up your time to be a hands-on volunteer with these kids, is where the real generosity lies. And if a sponsor then decides to raise funds for something, that’s great. But getting people together and getting them to help is our main concern.
What kind of people volunteer for your programmes?
Some of the volunteers are children from mainstream schools; this helps promote integration between children with special needs and those without. Also some of the senior special-needs students have chosen to be volunteers for the younger children.
Tell us more about Reaching U’s events and activities.
The Reaching U Family Fun Day is an annual event held in Jumeriah Beach Park – HRH Princess Hayais our patron. Our first Fun Day was in 2007, and included all manner of activities – bouncy castles, obstacle courses, performances, climbing wall, face painting, clowns – all for free. This is not fundraising, it is purely to raise awareness of our work. Children, with or without special needs, and their families are invited. At the last event we had busloads of children coming from as far as Al Ain and Ras Al Khaimah. More than 1,500 people attended. This event is all about getting people together, and getting special needs kids involved in a community activity.
Reaching U also offers free personal training for children and adults with special needs, thanks to the generous personal sponsorship from our clients. As mentioned earlier, we also run the Beach Blast programme: every alternate Thursday at Jumeirah Open Beach, between 3pm and 4pm, we invite a large group of children with special needs down to the beach. With the help of our volunteers, we take the children for a ‘Beach Blast’ – an hour of fun and fitness on the sand and in the sea. We also led a sponsored team climb of Mount Kinabula, Malaysia. Our group consisted of 12 climbers (including two young Emirati men with Special Needs from Dubai Club for Special Sports).
For more info, email email@example.com.