Unsung heroes – top of the class

| March 1, 2013 - 13.00UTC

Special School teacher, Paralympic coach, mature student, motivator, mother – is Celestine Buluti a superwoman? wonders Carol Gachiengo.

Celestine Buluti just exudes positive energy. This inspirational 40-year-old – who seems a good decade younger – is one of those people who leave you motivated and astonishingly optimistic.

Celestine teaches vocational skills to people with intellectual disabilities at Jacaranda Special School in Kileleshwa; she is also a volunteer athletics coach with the Paralympics Association. It is quickly evident that not only is she good at both these roles, she’s also incredibly passionate about them.

Celestine’s students live with conditions including cerebral palsy and severe autism. In her Vocational Studies class, she teaches them skills such as knitting, crochet and beadwork, to enable them to earn a living, and constantly looks for new crafts to teach. “Walking in Kenyatta Market, I saw a lady making mats. It didn’t look too difficult, so I bought some material and tried it out,” she says matter-of-factly.

Celestine doesn’t consider her job done when she leaves her classroom. There are things the students need to learn, such as personal hygiene, that may not fall into any lesson plan. For the 2011 National Music Festival, Celestine taught the Jacaranda School Choir a nine-stanza choral verse and they walked away with the Best Special School award.

“My kids will confirm that I am not a patient person,” Celestine laughs, referring to her daughter Samira, 15, and son Hamisi, 12. But, she adds, “for my students I have all the patience in the world.”

Her dedication has paid dividends: her students could teach all of us a thing or two: “They are disciplined. They wait their turn. They are respectful,” Celestine says. “They listen to each other and solve issues through dialogue. They know their rights and refuse to be misused.”

In the past, people with intellectual disabilities have been exploited by criminals; the students at Jacaranda know how to deal with such advances.

Celestine has experienced many proud moments. She recalls one student, Mburu, who rears chickens to earn a living. Mburu used to ride his bicycle to Jacaranda each day. “One day he called me aside to see his new bike,” Celestine recalls. “You cannot imagine my surprise when I saw he’d bought a motorbike.”

She also remembers the first time she accompanied athletes with disabilities to an international competition: the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland.

“I thought we would participate just for the experience,” she recollects. “It was the first time in an international competition for most of the athletes. So when I saw them winning silver or gold…” her near-permanent smile grows even wider.

Last year, Celestine accompanied the Kenya team to the London Paralympics as a coach and chaperone. She was impressed by the athletes’ discipline, and believes it is a team to watch in future.

Celestine is studying Special Education and PE at Kenyatta University and believes that those who coach people with disabilities would benefit immensely from scholarships for advanced studies. What qualities are important in a disability sports coach, I wondered? “You must be firm but not harsh,” Celestine advises, “empathise but don’t sympathise.”

With Celestine on board, the future of the Kenyan Paralym-pics team could be bright indeed.

Quick Facts:
Philosophy: Don’t look for the disability, look for the ability
Favourite pastimes: Dance – I love African music and dance
Now reading: Rich Dad Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki
I’d like to be at: Nyayo Stadium, watching a game; Bomas of Kenya, watching a traditional dance; or the National Theatre, watching a play – I once acted in a play there, called Wrong Number
Favourite food: Ugali and chicken – I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and supper

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