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Mythili Chengapa is a mompreneur and founder of an integrated centre for autistic children in Cambodia, SmileStones. What's her story?
Struggles are part of the excitement, says Mythili Chengapa, a mompreneur and founder of SmileStones, an integrated centre for autistic children in Cambodia.
It isn’t easy to balance work and family for a working woman. Add motherhood to the mix, garnish it with social entrepreneurship, and the cauldron appears too daunting to cook into a delectable palate every day. But Mythili Chengapa, Founder and CEO of SmileStones (Cambodia) Co. Ltd and mother of 9-year-old Nirvan and 7-year-old Rian enjoys walking the tightrope. Especially since SmileStones — an integrated behaviour and speech therapy centre for autistic children in Cambodia — is a passion project.
Before starting Smilestones, Mythili Chengapa worked as an operations manager at a reputed Japanese Kindergarten in Phnom Penh, a job she loved because of the opportunity it provided her to influence the lives of ‘little impressionable beings.’ It was after five years into her job that she realised her calling.
“There were many cases of children with autism that would come to our Kindergarten for admission, and we knew we could not support their learning needs. So, we would recommend them to the only therapy centre we had heard of in Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, the parents would rarely be satisfied or come back citing lack of available slots, and sadly, that clinic shut down after some time. So, we were at a loss as to how to help these children,” Mythili recalls.
Teachers not trained in special education often encounter daunting challenges in helping special-needs children in a regular school. Mythili realised this when more and more teachers started coming to the school management asking for help with issues in handling such children in a regular classroom. “All they wanted was an extra pair of eyes and hands to handle the special lot of toddlers. That meant more costs to the school, and more importantly, the children were only being looked after but not really learning,” she explains.
While exploring solutions, Mythili approached Mrs Radhika Poovayya, BCBA from Florida institute, who runs Samvaad Centre of Speech & Hearing clinics and institutes in Bengaluru, to set up a similar centre in Cambodia. Radhika didn’t have the bandwidth to leave things in India for another country, so she suggested that Mythili set up this centre herself, and offered to partner with her for the assessments and therapy expertise. Thus, Smilestones was born in August 2019.
Our Centre entrance with a list of the services
“I read somewhere that businesses start for three main reasons. The first and the usual reason is to make money, the second is to fill a gap, and the third is to do good in the world. I can most certainly say that this business idea started with the intention to help children who needed support, and so it was started to do good in the world,” Mythili asserts with a smile that lights up her eyes.
Being a mother of an autistic child, I know the significance of and difficulties in finding quality autism care services for such children in India. So, when I first came to know that Mythili had established such a centre in Cambodia, I was curious to learn about the challenges and difficulties of running the centre in a resource-constrained third-world country. While interacting with her, I realised that the challenges were similar to those in India and most Asian countries.
“The awareness about the condition is very low, and the instinctive urge is to push ‘Autism’ under the carpet and hope that it goes away on its own. Treatment costs are high as therapies go on for months and years, and the proportion of the population able to afford the treatment is low. Even out of those, a small sample comes looking to us for help because of the stigma attached to the condition,” she elaborates.
sensory play with a student
The more significant struggle, however, is for parents and caretakers to remain patient and committed to undertaking intense daily sessions for an extended period, as per Mythili. “But then, struggles are part of the excitement,” she adds, like a true entrepreneur.
Mythili’s father is from Coorg in India, and her mother originates from Sri Lanka. Her grandmother was Eurasian from Australia with roots in several other European and Asian countries. A young Mythili grew up in Saudi Arabia in a broad-minded multicultural household where inclusion and accepting differences were important.
“I grew up in a Muslim country to parents who were Hindu and Christian, and I now live in a Buddhist country. My background and childhood have hugely contributed to me becoming a true citizen of the world and accepting differences in every form. My parents always emphasised that what matters most in life is being human,” she reminisces.
Further, Mythili’s maternal uncle was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after birth, enabling her to get familiar with children and adults with disabilities from a young age.
Mythili wakes up around 5-5.30 am daily to prepare breakfast and lunches for her school-going children. She makes it a point to talk to her sons in the morning and ensures they leave for school with their ‘hearts and stomachs filled.’ Then she enjoys some ‘me-time’ with her coffee cup while her husband gets ready for work. Around this time, one of her ‘biggest blessings’ —her house help — comes in. “Seeing her face in the morning puts me at ease that everything will be taken care of by my super support house manager,” she shares without inhibitions before confessing, “I have realised that delegation and overseeing is a much better use of my time at the house.”
She leaves for Smilestones at 10 am, and once there, her focus is entirely on the centre. Despite the Covid situation, the centre’s small all-woman team has made a difference in the life of 70-80 children since its inception. Mythili credits her husband for actively supporting her in the entrepreneurial journey. “We are an all-women team of five at the moment. I will not discount the massive contribution and support of my husband, who has set up and continues to maintain our accounts department from day one,” she acknowledges.
working with the team
Mythili often returns home at six in the evening, later than her children. “I am proud to say that the children love to come home to mama but are equally well trained to deal with the days mama is busy and is late to arrive,” she says matter-of-factly.
Evenings at home are spent chatting to her kids about school, playing with them and helping them with their homework. The family eats dinner together, and after putting her sons to bed, Mythili enjoys talking to her husband over a glass of wine or TV before calling it a day.
Mythili was drawn to the idea of giving back to the country of her residence. “Having lived in Cambodia for nine years, I have grown to love its people, culture, and language, and am immensely grateful for all that the country has given me. To be able to provide ABA-led Autism services here has been a truly fulfilling experience,” she mentions.
Her vision is to improve the quality of lives of Autistic children and their families through Smilestones. “I want to be able to touch lives in a way that everyone who comes to us can go back experiencing the change – in whatever way, in understanding the disorder better, in seeing a change in their child’s communication or behaviour,” she says with a passion that is contagious.
kids love the Centre
Mythili concurs with my view that parents not accepting that their child has a problem or being ashamed of their child’s situation is the biggest challenge for Autistic children because it deters such children from getting help to improve. “Getting help for Autistic children is important,” she emphasises and hopes to see more such parents turn up at Smilestones.
Mythili advises womenpreneurs not to hesitate to ask for support. “You do not have to do everything yourself,” she says. She has similar advice for mothers of children with autism. “A special child is the responsibility of both parents. You need support to do home chores, support to help with your child’s learning, support to run the house, support with your business; there is no shame in asking and arranging for the help you need,” she emphatically adds.
Our Centre, inside
Her parting words to me are, “A mom with an autistic child is just like a normal mom, except much stronger. So, if anyone can do it, it must be you!” I conclude our interview with those encouraging words ringing in my ears.
Find Mythili Chengapa at LinkedIn and Instagram
Images source: Mythili Chengapa
Smita Das Jain is a writer by passion who writes every day. Samples of her writing are visible in the surroundings around her — her home office, her sunny terrace garden, her husband’s car and read more...
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