Special-needs pupils at the strictly Orthodox Side by Side school are learning more than tikkun olam when delivering weekly food parcels to people in need.
They bring packages of soup, hot dishes such as schnitzel and meatballs, plus desserts, to Hackney clients of Charedi charity, Hotline. The weekly delivery is also an opportunity for the pupils — who have varying, severe special needs — to pick up life skills like checking addresses.
Accompanying the boys to the charity kitchen and the delivery point, fundraiser David Mendelovitz said they really looked forward to the task.
“Of course, every child likes leaving school and going out and about, but they have to match the addresses on the parcels to the house numbers and find the houses themselves.”
Side by Side stems from the vision of founder, Rebecca Rumpler, who established the nursery in her front room.The current premises are two grey semi-permanent cabins with space for 35 nursery children, both mainstream and special needs, and 25 school-age boys with special needs.
The school will move to purpose-built accommodation, provided the Agudas Israel Housing Association can obtain planning permission.
The AIHA will contribute land worth £1.5 million if consent is given for flats above the new building — and the school meets the £4 million construction costs. AIHA chief executive Ita Symons hoped Hackney Council would “have the stomach” to approve the project.
Although headmaster Gerald Lebrett acknowledged the need to move, he stressed: “We can stay here as long as we need. The trustees are looking at a lot of different options.
“At the moment, we are meeting demand — we’ve never had to turn any special-needs children away. But we are only able to take boys up to the age of 16. We would like to extend it to 19 in time for when the national school leaving age becomes 18 in 2015.”
Mr Mendelovitz said Side by Side had an annual £600,000 fundraising target. Even on a shoestring budget, it managed to offer sensory soft play rooms, physiotherapy, voice therapy and one-to-one help for children with the most complex needs.
Pupils’ conditions range from Down’s Syndrome to autism. Some children are wheelchair-bound, others are blind and some have to be fed by tube.
Senior teacher Sue Gerrard said it was sometimes hard for parents to accept that the children needed to progress at their own pace. “It causes so much anxiety and pain. Some parents think that if they push their children, maybe they will eventually be normal.”
Yet some will go on to lead semi-independent lives and hold down a basic job. Mr Lebrett said it was “vital” the children grew up to be part of the community. “We have given them various opportunities for work experience.
“We teach them life skills like cookery and some of the boys run a café, with a price list and the parents come in.
The last one was a fruit café for Tu Bishvat. A Jubilee-themed fete is planned for the school, where the boys will prepare finger sandwiches and afternoon tea.”
Rivka Schlesinger, special educational needs co-ordinator in the nursery, said the job satisfaction of a special needs teacher was second to none.