A Strandfontein mother’s belief that everyone should have a chance in life, irrespective of their learning ability, has enabled her to live her mission for more than 30 years.
Colleen Daniels-Horswell is the principal of Gerard’s Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centre, an inclusive education institution for pupils from Mitchell’s Plain, Strandfontein and surrounding areas. The ECD is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
When Ms Daniels-Horswell gave birth to Gerard Horswell on January 3 1984, she was told by medical staff to bury him and forget about him because he has Down’s syndrome, she told the Plainsman.
But she refused and demanded to see him.
“I saw them feed him through a syringe and just pushing the milk into the tube. I said no, give me my child and I put him on my breast,” she said.
Ms Daniels-Horswell asked questions and read up about Gerard’s condition. However, she battled to find an educare for him.
“Reality only hit months after Gerard was born and I did not know what to do with this child,” she said.
Daily she would take a taxi from Grassy Park, a train to Cape Town station and then another taxi to Gardens. This would be her journey every day until she decided to start her own school.
But before this, she connected with two parents of children with Down’s syndrome and they started Peter Pan in Gardens, Cape Town, in 1986 when they were unable to find pre-school facilities of any kind for their children.
“We opened the school with three children and we received many requests for information and assistance.”
Today, Peter Pan Down Syndrome Centre, an inclusive education pre-school, is a pioneer in the concept of inclusive education, having introduced full integration of disabled and non-disabled preschools to the Western Cape.
At the time they employed a woman with special needs who is the principal today. They moved from Gardens to Salt River and now they are based in Maitland.
It was premised on children learning by mimicking. Cape Mental Health helped them.
“I don’t know how I survived it all, having had a baby with Down’s syndrome during apartheid, when children already had challenges,” she said.
Ms Daniels-Horswell refers to a “normal” child as a developing child because “what is normal”.
The phrase refers to the normal progression by which children change as they grow older by acquiring and refining knowledge, behaviors, and skills.
In 1989 she opened doors to Gerard’s ECD Centre, in Trafalgar Drive, Strandfontein, at her home.
They have had two other residences but since 2015 they have been tenants of the City of Cape Town, after winning a tender to provide this service.
Ms Daniels-Horswell has four sons, Hilton, 42, Gerard, 35, Aaron, 34, and Robert, 33, who also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with cognitive delay.
In her matric year, Ms Daniels-Horswell recalls, a teacher predicted that she would be a pre-school teacher.
“I just wanted what was best for (Gerard),” she said.
Ms Daniels-Horswell raises and cares for her pupils like she would her own children.
“I want to help raise caring citizens, who can make decisions, solve problems and achieve their potential.”
She said the caring nature of a developing child was a blessing to watch because they never made fun of the child with a disability.
“If anything, they are more aware of the special needs of the pupils and they are sensitive to assisting each other,” she said.
In 2014, Gerard’s ECD centre was named Best ECD site in South Africa. The school, which derives its income from school fees, is run and resourced by a committee, who ensure the doors of the school stay open.
The centre is one of six schools which form part of a pilot with the A-Plus programme based in Michigan, Massachusetts, in America.
It is in line with the National Curriculum Framework and is a base, which German students frequent as part of a three-to-four week exchange programme.
Ms Daniels-Horswell thanked her staff, parents, pupils and supporters for their unwavering support over the years.
“We have innovative teachers who can do many different things with limited resources.”