How it all began at Diya Foundation

Diya Foundation was set up in 1999 by Maria S Santamaria (known to all as Sarah). A special educator by profession, she used to teach at the Convent of Jesus & Mary Special School in Byculla, Mumbai. It was during this tenure that she was first moved by the problems faced by parents of mentally-challenged children, especially their dilemma about their children’s future. This led to a desire to get certified to teach and she thus did her BEd in Special Education at SNDT, Mumbai. Post this stint, she went to the USA to get a specialisation in the field through a Masters in Special Education; from the Cardinal Stritch College, Milwaukee. One of her key observations when in the US was that the disabled there had dignity of labour.

This enabled them to take up jobs such as cleaning staff in restaurants, shop assistants etc. and thus have a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. In India, this was clearly not the case. She realized that parents of the disabled in India harbor a desire for their children to go down the regular academic route. Not being able to do so, it leads to a sense of frustration for both parents and children alike. Her US visit gave her a contrary view – it was important to teach the mentally disabled skills that would make them truly independent. Enabling them with skills like cooking basic food ( i.e. boiling an egg, cooking rice, putting together a sandwich etc.), finding their way back home if lost, getting dressed, using the washroom etc. were the need of the day.

Sarah even goes to the extent of saying that, “Academics does not make them independent. Infact, the ability of knowing how to sign their name, without other intellect, can actually be used against them.” After her Masters in the US, she gained work experience in job coaching as she had already gotten thinking about setting up a vocational training center. After returning to India in September 1994, she soon got married (in 1995) and moved to Bangalore. A brief stint with the Sophia Opportunity School in Bangalore followed, post which she set up Diya Foundation with the unconditional support of her husband Gerard.

She recalls a particular incident whilst working at the Sophia Opportunity School in Bangalore. At that time, one of her students was a mentally-disabled 14-year-old boy. While Sarah does not recall his name, she remembers that he was very handsome. He used to constantly pester Sarah to marry him. He was simply obsessed with the concept of marriage! His mother was totally fed up with his marriage pleas too and had begun ignoring him when he went on this tangent. One day, as he proposed to Sarah for the hundredth time, she questioned how she and the other teachers were really helping him or others like him. She remembers feeling like a big failure at that moment. This boy could observe the world around him but had no understanding of the same! He hadn’t been taught any life skills. That’s when she explained to him the concept of being married, that one person earned and the other took care of the children, about the importance of earning money etc. With time, he did understand and his proposals stopped too.

For over a decade now, Diya Foundation has been focusing on teaching life skills through their vocational training center cum sheltered workshop. Sarah is Founder and CEO.

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