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The Veruschka Foundation offers sheltered activities for people with developmental disabilities, the first of which is The Cook For Change Challenge

Tatyana Dias’ sister Veruschka was autistic and the family was unable to identify a set-up that could cater to her special needs. In May last year, at the age of 16, Veruschka passed away after a bout of unexplained headaches.

“She was full of life, and it is her vivacious laughter and positive spirit that we miss the most,” recalls Dias, 32.

Dias, moved by her sister’s condition, did a PhD in neurobiology and went on to join The Gurdon Institute in Cambridge where she worked on Alzheimer’s Research. She is now a neurobiology researcher at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

In her sister’s memory, Dias has launched the Veruschka Foundation, an initiative that will complement the work done by existing special schools and NGOs in Mumbai.

“Our idea is to offer sheltered workshops, and give existing set-ups for individuals with developmental disabilities a platform for activities,” Dias says. The effort is jointly spearheaded by her friend Christina Joseph, who has also faced the personal struggle of caring for an aunt with Down Syndrome.


In partnership with the Forum for Autism, The Veruschka Foundation will host its first event, The Cook For Change Challenge , this weekend. “My sister loved food,” Dias says, “and the idea is to give developmentally-disabled participants a platform to showcase their talent.” The rules are simple: a team of three — two developmentally-disabled — adults and one supporting person — will get one hour to prepare a savoury dish. They will then be given an additional 15 minutes to plate up their preparation and proceed to the tasting room where the judges — Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, his wife Alyona, and Chef Anupa Das — will taste and adjudicate the winners.

Chef Sanjeev will be more of a mentor to the participants than a judge. He hopes to instil encouragement in every participant. “Everyone has a special quality; they can sing, dance and even cook,” he says. “The idea is to understand their skill set, recognise it, and reward the effort.”

Participating groups

Nine teams, which include participants from ADAPT (formerly The Spastics Society of India), The Anchorage and Adya Akshar Special School, have signed up. Rekha Vijaykar, senior director, centre operations, ADAPT, is thrilled to have two 20-year-old girls, Natasha and Kamala, represent the organisation. “Natasha has mild cerebral palsy, and Kamala is autistic,” says the director. “The movement of their hands is restricted, but our mission is to include them. I always tell people, take us into what you are doing. We believe ‘I can what you can’. If a person cannot sing, we don’t say he has a musical disability.”

But the strong contenders at the cook-off are the participants from Arpan, a tiffin catering service started by Yash Charitable Trust, which works with adults having developmental disabilities. Sushama Nagarkar, managing trustee, says, “We want our adults to network, meet new people, and savour the experience. They don’t get such exposure very often.”

Each one, help one

Dias, who has set out with a strong academic foundation, says, “After my sister’s death, I realised that all I wanted to do was give back to society and help make a difference.” Furthermore, things get difficult when differently-abled people turn 16 when the support doesn’t come forward as much. “We also plan to have a conference to raise awareness about developmental disabilities in India and discuss the current state of affairs in this field, the treatment, and healthcare,” concludes Dias. Attend the cook-off and see how you can do your bit.

Phorum Dalal – The author is a freelance writer – The Hindu, Sept. 24th, 2016

The Cook For Change Challenge: September 25, 10 a.m., St. Andrew’s College, Bandra