This is the story of an incredible group of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) students who discovered their passion for helping others. Their story begins with the action taken by one dedicated teacher, eager to coax these young people out from their shell.
This is also the story of a Ugandan baby girl who was raised by her nine-year-old brother after their mother left for London to find work.
Most of all, this is the story of people coming together through WE and shattering expectations.
It’s a ten-minute walk from White Hart Lane tube station to The Vale School, a SEND school in Haringey, North London.
As I walk under a grey London sky, past second-hand shops and shuttered store fronts through one of the most disadvantaged communities in the UK towards the school, I run through the details of the story in my mind.
Despite society’s assumption that SEND students need help, these students have looked past themselves to help a young woman named Victoria, and in doing so, they’ve discovered a sense of confidence and purpose they never had before.
And now I was about to see all this play out first hand.
Richard Tharp, their teacher, warmly thanks me for coming as students file in, joined by their family members and people from the community. They’re here for a celebration, with music and dancing, to showcase what the students have learned and how they’ve grown.
The standard curriculum doesn’t work here, Richard tells me, gesturing to the scene as he talks. If he wants to help his students find their place in the world, he needs to be creative. That’s the reason he started working with Victoria.
Victoria is a 19-year-old refugee from Uganda. Her father died from HIV when she was a baby. As her mother tried to secure visas to the U.K. to reunite them, Victoria was raised, alongside her younger sister, by their nine-year-old brother. They found jobs, went to school, studied, looked after one another, and waited to come to the UK.
Then, two months before Christmas and after nearly two decades apart, word came: they’d finally be a family again.
Richard found Victoria through WE Schools. He had been looking for a way to get his students engaged outside of the classroom, so he called his WE Schools Coordinator who connected him with a programme that supports refugees. And there was Victoria, a ready volunteer, eager to gain new skills for the workplace. Richard heard her story and knew immediately his students would connect with her.
Richard’s students run the spectrum of learning difficulties, medical conditions and physical disabilities. Many of them wouldn’t stand in front of a group of people a few months ago—let alone speak to strangers or navigate public transport.
Today, after meeting Victoria, things are different. In this young woman’s struggle to overcome hardships, the students found the inspiration to come out from their shells. They interviewed her and her sister to discover more about their experience in Uganda, as well as to learn about life as a refugee in London. They wrote articles and raised awareness in their community. With uncharacteristic confidence, Richard saw his students share their newfound knowledge with anyone who would listen. Victoria, too, has benefited and learned from her relationship with Vale students.
Volunteering at the school has helped Victoria gain confidence and feel more at home in the UK. The sense of belonging earned through giving back to one’s community is life changing for an individual who waited almost two decades to get a visa. With her mother ill and unable to work, the government believed Victoria was also not able to keep employment, which caused the delay.
“I have to show people that refugees are capable of giving back,” she tells me. And she has, volunteering every Friday to teach art at The Vale. Luckily for future generations, the experience has Victoria dreaming of becoming a teacher. “If my experiences have inspired others, I’m happy.”
She’s reached one student in particular.
Darnell was expelled from his previous school for behavioural issues, but at The Vale, he’s flourishing. In fact, he’s head of the student council. Darnell points to Victoria when speaking about what’s helped motivate the shift in his life. “You don’t meet a lot of people like her who have gone through the things she has,” Darnell says. “But she’s done a lot with her life and she makes me feel like I can do a lot with mine.”
Back in the classroom, paintings, handmade flags, pottery and jewellery adorn the walls, all done in the Ugandan colours of yellow, red and black.
Behind each piece is the feat of one or more Vale students. The students went to the local shop to buy craft supplies on their own; they navigated their way there, picked out what they needed, counted the money and interacted with strangers—a monumental accomplishment for these young people.
And it was Victoria who inspired them to do it. With art, she helped them give form to their imagination, and with her story, she gave them inspiration to venture into the world to create their own narratives.
That’s what we’ve come together to celebrate, Richard tells me. “’Karibo’ means gift in Uganda,” he says to the students, parents and community members as the celebration begins. “It’s Victoria’s second name, and she has been a gift to us.”
When Victoria bounds up in front of the class in a daisy print dress, the students are transfixed.
“We’re going to sing a song,” she tells the 40 people gathered. “The chorus goes: ‘Ndi muna Uganda.’ It means ‘I am Uganda.’”
As she starts to sing, students in protective head gear and wheelchairs break through solitary shells with choreographed dance moves, clapping and jamming.
It’s infectious. Parents clap and sing along. I do, too.
As students continue to dance, I find myself standing next to Deputy Head teacher Tony Millard. The pride is obvious in his voice. “WE has inspired our kids… and they have loads to contribute.”
As if on cue, students begin to show off their art.
“Our kids really want to be a part of the world, but there are so many barriers to overcome,” Tony tells me, as we watch students make the rounds, showing off for the parents gathered.
People may not expect much from individuals with special education needs and disabilities; they may not expect much from refugees, but Richard has empowered his students, along with Victoria, to give back and discover a sense of belonging and purpose. He has given them the opportunity to prove people wrong. “These kids are usually on the receiving end of a hand out,” Richard says. “But they have so much to offer. To see them give back is incredibly life affirming.”