Nairobi, Kenya, Aug 2, 2016 / 06:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In 2013, Leia Isanhart met a little boy in Nairobi with intellectual disabilities. Because he was not very mobile, his mother had to carry him around. Two years later, the senior technical advisor of Health for Catholic Relief Services said the young boy is jumping, clapping his hands, and singing. The mother is “full of joy” thanks to CRS. CRS partnered with Special Olympics and Adventist Center for Care and Support in 2013, developing a pilot program to care for children with disabilities and provide positive parenting training to families.

Since then, six early childhood development centers have been established and 270 children with special needs have been cared for in the slums of Nairobi. That number is continuing to grow. Isanhart explained that these are places where there are not many social services available, “let alone health services.” Thus, for a child who has a disability, “that’s where it becomes really important that we’re working in these really poor and vulnerable parts of the city so that these kids are not left behind.”

Isanhart recounted that in 2013 CRS was serving children with HIV who lived in high risk and very poor neighborhoods, providing early childhood development services. The group found out that Special Olympics was working in the same part of the city and identified a number of children in the same age group that CRS was serving. New centers were then developed which allowed for children with intellectual disabilities to be added into their program. Twice a week the children, ages two to seven, spend a couple of hours in the early childhood development centers with their caregivers.

“First, they go through something like an obstacle course,” Isanhart said. Special Olympics runs the set of play activities which help the children build their motor skills and follow directions. Then they play with other children from the neighborhood, who do not have disabilities; this helps break stigmas in the community about children with special needs. These inclusive play and sports sessions last about 45 minutes, and children and their caregivers then break out into different sessions. A physical therapy session was added this year.

Isanhart said CRS realized many children and their caregivers could not access physical therapy within their neighborhoods. “They were having to go long distances for it and it was expensive,” she said, so CRS brought the service to them. Parents also receive support from the centers. “We give them what’s called positive parenting education,” Isanhart explained.

The program helps coach parents on how they can relate to their children, and support their child’s growth and development. Isanhart said adult athletes from Special Olympics come in from the community and help run the activities to be role models for both parents and children, “to show them that they, too, can become a healthy, thriving adults.” This has even empowered the athletes, she said, “and given hope to the parents that their child can become an example and a stand-out figure within their community.”

In addition to physical therapists and Special Olympics coaches, community health workers and social workers also provide at-home services. Each family gets home visits to reinforce education on positive parenting, nutrition, and hygiene. The social worker is able to ask how the family is doing and if they need help with tasks such as getting a birth certificate.

“We found that a lot of kids in the program didn’t have a birth certificate, which means they cannot access other government services,” Isanhart said. Sometimes a child is born at home and the paperwork never gets processed, or a father leaves the family because of the child’s disability and does not sign the paperwork. Often families are overwhelmed by the amount of care a child with intellectual disability needs, so they do not look into it.

“What we’re doing is using the social workers to simplify the process for them,” Isanhart explained. Bill Ouko, CRS’ project manager, said the community has responded positively to the centers, which have increased participation and support for children with intellectual disabilities. “For example, male caregivers are now more involved in parenting,” he said.

Men in the community are even going so far as to spread the word about the centers to other families with special needs children. One community, he explained, came together to fund monthly transportation for a child in the area to attend the early childhood development center. “Children who were previously locked away and [who] come to our centers closed off and not socializing,” he said, “end up opening up and learning to socialize and play with others.”

Ouko stressed the importance education has in making a difference for children with intellectual disabilities: “The community needs it in order to stop the stigma and act as a support structure.” The program is developing a new positive parenting teaching manual meant for caregivers of disabled children, and they plan on teaching women religious in Kenya who take care of special needs children. “Then you’ll have a whole new set of sisters throughout Kenya who know how to address these special needs children and teach their caregivers how to do the same,” Isanhart said.

Ouko and Isanhart agreed that these children are achieving their full human potential through the early childhood development centers, and hope to gain more support to continue their work.