Mdm Faraliza does not hesitate when asked why she took up the challenge of setting up a school: her son, Ashraf, needed one, so she set up a special space for him and peers alike. So began My Inspiring Journey (MIJ) — the special education hub Mdm Faraliza (and her husband) founded in 2011 — where we find her amidst a flurry of activity on the morning of our interview. Mdm Faraliza is all too familiar with the struggles of seeking and providing education for special needs individuals. Her son, Ashraf, was born with Autism. 

From operating out of a storeroom at Sultan Mosque, My Inspiring Journey has now grown into a dynamic and holistic learning space for children (and adults) with special needs like Autism, ADHD, Down Syndrome, Developmental Delay and Cerebral Palsy. Motivated to provide workplace training and employment opportunities for My Inspiring Journey’s students, Mdm Faraliza also set up Ashraf’s Cafe. Now 9 years on from when she first started, we sat down with Mdm Faraliza for a candid reflection on her personal journey, the honest challenges of My Inspiring Journey and what it really takes to become a special needs educator. 

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The Beginning: Starting My Inspiring Journey & Ashraf’s Cafe.

1. Tell us more about how My Inspiring Journey began. What motivated you to start the school? 

My Inspiring Journey was established in 2011, 9 years ago. My intention is simple — I want to help my son Ashraf and others like him. When I resigned from my job in 2010, I took a year [where I] did a lot of research about special needs. I took up a lot of courses and certifications. In fact, when he (Ashraf) was first diagnosed at 2, I was already attending courses to learn how to manage him better, especially when he was having meltdowns. 

We started [MIJ] with a weekend programme first, just to teach ethics, moral values etc. That was when Sultan Mosque accepted our proposal and was open to having a class for special needs. There wasn’t any room and we were shown a storeroom in the annex of the building, it was very small! But we were very thankful because at least there was someone who trusted and supported us. We started the class in January 2011, Ashraf was the first student. Then came 14 other students with various diagnoses. So we started with about 15 students and yearly, the numbers kept increasing. After 2 years with sultan mosque we decided to move out and find a bigger place. 

2. Can you tell us more about Ashraf’s Cafe?

As Ashraf developed, MIJ developed! We had to think, what’s next? When he was in his fourth year of the Work Readiness Adult Programme (WRAP), I had to think, what’s next for him? If he doesn’t get a job outside, how can we then cater jobs to him and his friends? At that point there were about 6 of his classmates, including him, completing their final year in WRAP. That’s when we thought about starting a F&B business for them. Actually when we started MIJ here on the third floor, the first floor was already a cafe and it was vacant. So it was easy for us to move in and get started! 

Ashraf’s cafe is like a training ground for these [special needs] students. The traffic [at the cafe] is not that high and the menu is not so difficult — it’s to cater to people with special needs. Because if there’s too much traffic it will overwhelm them. It’s just nice so [the employees] can take their time to prepare food. We did a lot of trials for the menu, we started with rice but now we have sandwiches. We feel that anything that is structured, like making a sandwich, is easier for them to follow. By having Ashraf’s Cafe in a commercial building, [the special needs employees] are also able to interact with others and others can interact with them, which helps to create awareness in the community about individuals with special needs. 

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What It’s Like Working In Special Needs Education.

3. Tell us about a day in your life working at My Inspiring Journey, what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

My day starts as early as 5 A.M. in the morning! I will wake up by 6.15 or 6.45 A.M. and leave the house to send my youngest son to school. My daughter is also working here part-time while waiting for her A-Levels results. Sometimes, she has to come in by 7 A.M. for our student care programme. If Ashraf has to work on that day, I will go back home to fetch him and come back to MIJ. I am here latest by 8.30 A.M., or earliest at 6.45 A.M. When I’m here I’ll check the entire place and sometimes I do sweep the floor (laughs)! Then I will start on my to-do list: who I’m going to call, or if there is a meeting, then what are the points I want to discuss with my staff. And yes, day to day it’s always about meetings! There are also times when I conduct training for my own teachers; it’s very important for me to ensure that the teachers are knowledgeable not only about special needs, but how to manage students. 

Of course, if I hear some students having a meltdown and if the teachers are too occupied to attend to one child, that’s where I will have a pull-out session and do an intervention with the child. Our intervention is movement therapy, they include essential oils because [essential oils] really calm [the students] down. 

4. Do the teachers working at My Inspiring Journey come from a special needs education training background? 

Of course there are those who come onboard with special needs background. But another reason why we established MIJ, is to give opportunities to those who are in a different industry but want to change their careers and teach students with special needs. Although they don’t have the background or qualifications, if they have the drive, the passion and the resilience, we welcome them to come onboard. They come onboard with a 3 year bond, because the 3 years is where we really train them in terms of skills, knowledge and attitude! 

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The Truth: What It Really Takes To Be A Special Needs Educator.

5. How do you decide if someone is suitable to be a special needs educator?

When we hire, we have 2 interviews (at the most 3). In the first interview we sit down and ask questions — like normal interviews — like why do you want to work in special needs and scenario-based questions. But for me, speaking to a person during the interview is not enough. I need to see them in action! So after the first interview, if they (the candidates) are selected, they move on to the second interview where they will be put in a class with 2 to 3 students. That’s where some of them will call and say they’ve decided not to join because that part is a challenge, especially if they don’t have a background in special needs. But we get people who are like gungho you know, [who say] okay I can do this. We can see then — and it’s easier for us to pick — if this person is suitable to educate children with special needs. 

6. What is it really like working in special needs education? 

It’s not easy, when [the teachers] come onboard there are students who are full of energy, there are students who can be very upset and they don’t know how to manage their emotions. That’s when [the students] can scratch the teachers, hit the teachers, pull the teachers hair…these are things the educators have to go through. There are also times when the teachers have to deal with students with limited speech, who are not able to communicate. So then, how are they to understand the child and how does the child understand the teacher? That’s where the training comes in. 

Also, we do have two teachers to six students, so [the teachers] also need to learn to work with the co-teacher. How are they going to plan the lesson, who is going to teach what? So it (working in special needs education) encompasses everything, it’s not just about the students but also your fellow teachers. 

7. It seems that going into special needs education is not that popular a choice of career/vocation in Singapore. Do you have any advice for those who are looking to pursue special needs education as a career? What values/characteristics would one have to possess?

During interviews, I love to ask questions that are scenario-based. I discovered that throughout the interviews, [candidates] will always say, I have passion. Passion always comes first. But somehow, they do not know what they are in for! They want to do a good job, but the moment they see a child having a meltdown they are like, oh my God, what am I supposed to do? Which is why we need someone who is calm, so passion itself is not sufficient. You need to have calm vibes.

Having had a child with special needs and having worked with them for around 9 years, I’ve discovered that people with special needs have a special gift where they can sense other’s vibes. So when you come to them with a chaotic vibe — let’s say you had a fight with your spouse or someone else outside — just going into class you can see the entire class will be in chaos. It happens a lot of times. There are teachers who do not believe me, but the moment they face that they say, actually Mdm Fara it’s true, because today I feel very upset and when I come to class all my children react because they can sense my vibes. I always advise my teachers, whenever you have anything outside/at home — be it you quarrelled with your spouse, your parents — by the time you enter the school you need to leave that behind and come with a positive mindset and positive vibes. 

8. Are there any other values/characteristics one should possess?

The next thing is resilience! A lot of times we have teachers who quit in 24-hours, who just don’t have the resilience to go through the day-to-day with the children. Once they’ve been beaten or scratched, then that’s it. Or if [the children] have meltdowns — especially meltdowns — [the teachers] just can’t stand that. So passion is not enough, having resilience is one thing. Having calmness is another thing…and the ability to work as a team. And most importantly, your intention. You need to ask yourself, what is your real intention? Is it just passion or do you want to help these individuals achieve a better life and so on. So when you are burned out for example, you can always go back to your intention and that will remind you what you’re here for. 

The Right Way To Approach Those With Special Needs.

9. For those of us who are unfamiliar with special needs, how should we behave when we meet someone with special needs?

There are many kinds of special needs, there are invisible and visible types. Autism is invisible; but if you meet someone with down syndrome or who is physically handicapped, you will know straight away that the person has special needs. But when you meet someone with autism, you are not able to detect [it] until you observe them longer, or you try to speak to them. If you happen to meet someone with autism, all you can do is not to stare! As a parent with a special needs child, when someone stares at our child — because we are already very cautious of how our child behaves — [we] become kind of uncomfortable. 

But if a child is having a meltdown, some parents want to be helped. But there are cases where [I’ve seen] parents shouting, like, you don’t know about autism, why do you want to help? If the parents do not want help, all you can do is move on, just walk away. I think the parent is the best person to handle the child.

10. Have you had any negative experiences as a parent with a special needs child?

There are cases where people point, or make bad remarks…I’ve experienced it before. We were at the zoo and Ashraf was around 4 or 5 years old and he was reacting. So he actually stepped on someone’s child’s shoes and the dad used vulgarities on Ashraf. I was quite shocked. For me it was like, you don’t really know what is wrong with my son and you use vulgarities. So I had to explain that my son is special, he has autism, have you heard of autism? Only then he was like, oh okay I am sorry.

So I think as parents — it works both ways — you have to be the advocate and create awareness about autism. That’s the best, you don’t have to hide it. You have to understand that sometimes people do not know why your child is reacting that way. And by asking, that means they care, so you can tell them. You don’t have to think, oh this person has no mercy and so on — you just need to put yourself in that person’s shoes. And vice-versa! 

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Her Greatest Challenges & Why Small Steps Make Big Rewards.

11. What are some of the greatest challenges you have faced in this journey of My Inspiring Journey and Ashraf’s Cafe?

Throughout my journey in establishing My Inspiring Journey and Ashraf’s Cafe…one of the biggest things is coping financially. At MIJ, we accept students who are from middle to low-income [families], because having a child with autism, I cannot say no to someone who cannot afford to receive [special needs] education. In the early years of MIJ, we actually absorbed their fees, it all came out of our pockets. But after three or four years, we realised that cannot be the way because it was really, really heavy on us. That was when we started to do a lot of fundraising. (So we are just a social enterprise, not an IPCO or NGO.) The process of organising fundraising events is very challenging — you need a lot of effort, resources and time…and so on. That was the most challenging. 

And actually for me, managing children with special needs is easier than managing staff! They (the staff) come from all walks of life, different upbringings…and for me, I’m reaching 50, but those I’m hiring are all in their 20s! It’s a totally different era. So I have to understand how they work, how they approach things, how they perceive things. Those are things I need to learn, so it works both ways. 

The last challenge is to meet the expectations of parents. So (for parents) when I pay this amount, I expect quality out of the programme. Because of that, I have to make sure my staff are properly trained, that the teachers are able to carry out their duties well and know their responsibilities well. Then, the parents are able to trust and support you. 

12. And what has been the most rewarding part? 

The most rewarding thing is when I work with a child and see the child progress. Even the simplest things, like we had a child who used to sit on the floor frog style. To me, that was just the way he sat. Then one day he was able to cross his legs — I did not know he was not able to cross his legs [before]. His parents saw and said oh, so-and-so is able to cross his legs! Then I was like, you mean he was not able to cross his legs? Then his parents said yes, he was never able to cross his legs but now he can! So simple things like that we take for granted, but for some parents it’s a wow. Or, even a child who is a picky eater, when they are able to eat a particular food that their mum really wants them to eat, they are very happy. So these are the small rewards.

Even when I do intervention with a child who’s not able to speak, or having a lot of meltdowns, after some time they start to be calm, be able to walk properly and socialise…these are some of the small things that are really rewarding!  

Grab a small bite for a big cause at Ashraf’s Cafe, find them at:
168 Changi Rd, Fragrance Building #01-01/02
Singapore 419730

Whether you’re a fresh grad straight out of university, or someone who has been in the workforce for years now, navigating career paths can be scary and overwhelming.

The DC Edit seeks out passionate women from various industries to offer their two cents to the curious. Look out for more career features here.

Take care,

Melisa Goh

Melisa Goh

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