Quitting work to follow one’s heart

SANI Foundation executive director Michelle Chimuka.

WHEN Michelle Chimuka quit her job in 2014 at age 23, it was all for love. There was someone special in her life she wanted to devote her time and attention to, but she could not do it whilst working full-time.
After finishing secondary school in 2006, she studied the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) at the Zambia Centre for Accountancy Studies (ZCAS).
For her first job, she was employed at the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche (Zambia) as an audit associate and worked there for two years before moving to the Zambian Governance Foundation (ZGF), a local organisation that gives grants to NGOs.
She worked in the grants department to manage the different grants that were paid out and ensuring they were used appropriately.
Michelle has a 22-year-old younger brother called Michael who has down syndrome. Five years ago, when Michael was 17, he had been to every special education school his family could find in Lusaka.
“We had run out of options. It was sort of the same thing from one school after another,” Michelle says.
Michael was not making any serious intellectual progress despite growing older. At all the different schools, he was either being taught how to write his name or how to read.
His family wanted more for him and Michelle in particular took it upon herself to see how she could help her brother learn something that would actually be useful to him as he got older. She was only 23 but determined to see her brother’s life change.
She began to research special education institutions in Southern Africa and found a lot of interesting schools in the process.
Michelle emailed at least 20 of those schools. Some did not respond at all while others were concerned that Michael was 17 and would be out of the school system after a year. It, therefore, did not make sense to them to have him for only a year.
“There were places that said they only take South African students because they are government-funded and also places, that said they could enroll him but did not have boarding facilities,” Michelle explains.
Despite the setbacks, she kept looking until one day when she discovered an interesting place called Sunshine Zimbabwe Project that offered academic education and vocational skills training.
Michelle did a little bit more research on the institution and got in touch with its administrators. At some point, she boarded a bus heading to Harare and went to see the institution for herself.
“In person, it was far more fantastic than on the internet and I came back thinking of how we could get Michael into the place,” she shares.
However, the institution like many others she had come across on the internet in 2013, did not have a boarding facility.
Other options were suggested to Michelle and she even began looking for accounting jobs in Harare just so she could move there with her brother.
None of this worked out and in the six months she was trying to get Michael into an institution, she was still working at the ZGF.
She then decided to go back to Harare a few months after her first visit but this time with the intention to replicate some of the ideas she saw being practised at the Sunshine Zimbabwe Project.
Michelle spent a bit more time there because she was trying to learn what they were doing.
“By the time that I went back, I was thinking I want to do this work. Somehow, I am going to figure out a way to do this work in Zambia because it was just so interesting and nothing like that existed,” she says.
Michelle was particularly impressed with the way the training at the institution in Harare was structured. She spent a week there simply taking in all she could before deciding on the best way forward.
The institution in Zimbabwe did skills training where trainees with different intellectual disabilities such as down syndrome and autism were taught different skills.
Some trainees made crafts out of recycled material and others worked in a vegetable garden. Once a week, they went horse riding or would play sports like golf and football. They also had computer classes where they would learn how to use the internet and all had Facebook and WhatsApp accounts.
Despite their intellectual challenges, they were being taught to live normal lives by doing normal things.
“It was just a really interesting structure and even just interacting with the young people there, they were all friends and it was all fun. It wasn’t like going to school where it’s boring. It was just such a nice atmosphere,” Michelle recalls.
So, inspiring was the project in Harare that Michelle decided to form an organisation structured around teens and adults with intellectual disabilities.
She felt she couldn’t wait for someone else to start it especially that her brother was not getting any younger, so she quit her job at the ZGF even though she had no idea how she would pull it off with no money and no training.
The Sani Foundation’s vision is to facilitate the full inclusion of persons with intellectual disabilities in both rural and urban areas of Zambia into all aspects of society.
The organisation seeks to provide inclusive employment for young people with varying cognitive levels and is presently the only organisation in Zambia that gives individuals with intellectual disabilities the chance to learn skills that prepare them for employment.
After Michelle formed the organisation with the assistance of close family members, she went round to a number of schools to see if they could offer up a classroom for free on Saturdays.
Most of the schools she approached were unwilling to give up space but Cheshire Homes in Kabulonga came to their rescue. Every Saturday from 9 to 12 hours, Michelle got friends and family and whoever she knew was available to go to Cheshire Homes and work with the kids.
They taught them how to read and write and make simple crafts and it’s from there that the Sani Foundation took off.
Month after month, it grew beginning in January 2014 as more people offered to volunteer and more children started showing up. They had children with intellectual disabilities coming from as far as Matero and Zingalume.
By mid-2014 there were so many parents taking their children over that Michelle realised there was need for meetings more than once a week. They needed to make it more permanent.
With some help from family and friends, the foundation raised just enough money to rent a house in Woodlands in Lusaka for three months.
“That’s how we started a full-time programme and hired two full-time employees who were coming here to teach,” she shares.
Although it started small, they kept in touch with the Sunshine Zimbabwe Project to learn how to navigate different challenges.
From only two volunteers in the beginning, the foundation now has 11 paid staff that includes trainers and job coaches and about 23 trainees.
When someone with an intellectual disability enrolls at the foundation, the only condition is that they must have an intellectual disability and be 14 years or older.
Unfortunately, there are not enough spaces in Zambia offering the kind of services found at Sani Foundation despite there being great need for them.
Michelle and her family are therefore hopeful that the initiative they have started will inspire other people to take up the mantle and shine the light on the importance of giving people with intellectual disabilities the chance to be independent and thrive in all spheres of life.
As for Michael, he has learnt new skills under the foundation such as juice and smoothie making. He is now able to make money through a mobile juice bar that operates at the weekends in different parts of Lusaka.

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