Deepa Pathmanathan was quite nervous on the morning of February 23. A cake artist based in Coimbatore, her cake that day was made for some very special people. And she had no idea what to expect.
Deepa was one of the 30 cake artists who had agreed to be a part of ‘Supporticon’ – a campaign started by Bengaluru couple Geetha VM and Rathish P Subramaniam – which seeks to raise awareness about children with special needs.
Deepa had never interacted with children with special needs before. But when she reached Vriddhi, a centre for children with learning disabilities, Deepa and her 12-year-old daughter found themselves overwhelmed with the excitement and happiness of the children there.
Deepa with the children at Vriddhi
“I cannot describe the feeling in words. They were so intrigued by the cake and even happier when they came to know that it was for them. I realised that they just need our love and time,” Deepa gushes.
The experience moved Deepa so much that she decided to enroll as a volunteer there and starting June, plans to take an hour-long class in baking every week. “I want to involve them in something I love,” she says.
Deepa is just one of the people whose perspective about children with special needs has changed because of Supporticon’s new initiative ‘Bake to Support’. Bake to Support encourages people to bake a cake and give it to a child with special needs, or a school or organisation that supports children with physical or learning disabilities.
Supporticon was started by Geetha and Rathish in November last year, to raise awareness about children with physical as well as learning disabilities. Geetha says that she had always wanted to do something in this regard, driven by her own experiences in dealing with the society’s perception about her seven-year-old son Om, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Geetha and Om
Om was diagnosed when he was a little over two years old, but only after multiple pediatricians had failed to do so. “There was nothing wrong with him physically but he hadn’t achieved developmental milestones in speech and socialisation. We were worried but all the doctors told us that it was okay and maybe boys just start talking later,” Geetha recounts.
It was only after they enrolled Om in a preschool, hoping to give him a jump start, that they were told by the school authorities to take him to a child psychiatrist.
“After the diagnosis, we were very withdrawn initially. But we slowly realised that Om can live a normal life with the right intervention and therapy,” says Geetha. She also realised something else: “When I told people who looked at Om with pity or disgust, wondering why he was behaving the way he did, they were empathetic. They just didn’t know about the condition before and when they did, it changed their perspective,” Geetha says.
Wanting to spread awareness and involvement on a wider scale, Geetha urged Rathish, an advertising professional, to come up with an idea for a campaign. Rathish designed a logo – two smiling emoticons back to back, tied with a ribbon.
“It signifies support, the same support that we need as people and that we should provide to these children. People with imperfections and disabilities should be nurtured, not isolated, Rathish told me. I was sold,” Geetha narrates.
From the two emoticons leaning on each other came the name ‘Supporticon’.
Why the emoticons though? “They are forms of expression. The smileys you use in your day-to-day digital communication aren’t owned by any one person. If Supporticon went viral, we didn’t want it to belong to us, but to become the symbol of a movement, a means to show solidarity,” Geetha explains.
Once the name was coined and the social media account created, Rathish came up with a video script to spread the word. With the help of Om’s school’s principal Santhi Karamcheti, Geetha and Rathish were able to find other parents and children who would star in the video. With limited funds from family and friends, the video was shot.
It was released on World Disability Day, December 3. Much to their surprise, it was shared widely too.
Inspired, Geetha decided to take it to the next level and contacted her childhood friend Mary Ann George. A cake artist by profession, Mary Ann asked others in India and around the world to be part of Bake to Support and got 30 affirmative responses, including some bakers from Dubai and Malaysia.
And the cakes baked by the artists aren’t regular cakes – each of the bakers designed their cakes based on their interpretation of what Supporticon and the cause of supporting children with special needs or disability means. Check out some of these cakes:
Fathima Yusuff, Cake artist, Salem
Mary Ann George, Cake artist, Bengaluru
Ashel Sandeep, Cake artist, Bengaluru
Geetha thought that Bake for Support would end here. But in less than a fortnight since the initiative first went online, Geetha has received many messages from people, even children, wanting to bake and show support for the cause. And these have come from as far away as Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and the US, among other places.
One such junior baker is eight-year-old Ashreya, who baked a chocolate cake for children at the Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled in Bengaluru. Her mother, Tresa, has been an educator for special needs children for a year now.
She says that Ashreya was so excited at the prospect of going to the Trust the next day that she didn’t sleep till after midnight the night before! “She was nervous at first, but as soon as she met them and gave the cake to the children, her inhibitions vanished. I think Ashreya was able to empathise with them,” Tresa says.
Ashreya at Samarthanam Trust for the Disabled
It is this kind of feedback that makes the effort worthwhile for Geetha and Rathish. “People have used this exercise to involve their children, and to speak to them about inclusivity and bullying. Children who appear different are often bullied. Parents have written to me saying that their child now sees them with more empathy and sensitivity,” Geetha informs.
So far, the initiative is completely run by Geetha, her husband and close friends. Mary Ann continues to coordinate with cake artists and another friend of Geetha’s, Ramya Dharmarajan handles the content design for their social media page.
“No one has the time but everyone has a heart. Sometimes you just need to make them realise that. Baking is just a means through which they go speak to a child, spend time with a child who is constantly reminded of the fact that he/she is different. It’s a way to make them feel included,” says Geetha.
Mercy Solomon and her daughter Anunita Solomon, visited Deepam Special School in Chennai
Anunita distributes cake among children
Yamini and Maithreee, Bengaluru