Indonesia Expat

Educating Bali’s Unique Children: Sukacita Foundation

By raising awareness about intellectual disability, the Sukacita Foundation gives Bali’s ‘unique children’ a chance to thrive.

Children with cognitive delays can find the fast-paced demands of everyday life not just challenging but also frustrating. They usually take longer to learn new skills and require the kind of attention often not readily available in developing countries such as Indonesia. The Bali-based Sukacita Foundation is striving to create a shift in how children with special needs are perceived and coached by sharing expertise with teachers and caretakers of intellectually disabled children on the island.

Co-founders of Sukacita
Co-founders of Sukacita

“Assisting children with an intellectual disability is not only about teaching them to read and write, but also about understanding their particular needs,” says Sukacita’s Chairwoman Yolanda Onderwater. “Children with special needs often have a limited capacity to absorb information, and they face communication, social and self-management issues.”

Rather than imposing Western values on the Balinese, Sukacita’s aim is to make a positive change by raising awareness among teachers and communities, and letting them apply the information to their culture and lifestyle. “Our mission is to provide a greater understanding of children with a cognitive disability, and to integrate Balinese beliefs, culture and practices with creative approaches to special education,” Onderwater says.

Headquartered in the Netherlands, and based in Ubud, the Sukacita Foundation was founded in 2010 by three Dutch women with a love for Indonesia and an interest in social issues. Mila van der Meer is a social worker, Marieke Nijland specializes in education, and Yolanda Onderwater is a child therapist. The trio’s diverse educational backgrounds and ages, as well as experience of working with children with special needs, created a fruitful environment for the philanthropic organization to blossom.

“Every parent of a child with an intellectual disability, no matter where, faces the same problems and feelings of frustration.”

“Unfortunately, here in Bali and Indonesia there are less facilities and information for caretakers,” says Onderwater. “When setting up Sukacita, our inspiration came from seeing that a lot of Indonesian people and organizations in Bali already had taken some steps towards assisting people with an intellectual disability. We wanted to use our experience to help them achieve their goals.”

Onderwater highlights that professional care and education for people with an intellectual disability is still in its infancy in Indonesia. According to Sukacita, in 2012, 589 children with an intellectual disability attended SLB schools (schools for children with physical or intellectual disabilities) in Bali, while the World Health Organization’s statistics indicate that there were 12,500 intellectually disabled children in the seven to 12 age bracket in Bali at the time. This suggests that around 12,000 children with special needs were not getting the appropriate education and care.

“Some people in Indonesia believe that if you push a child to learn to read and write, they will eventually succeed. This is not necessarily the case for children with an intellectual disability,” Onderwater says. “I have seen children start to attend a normal school and stay in the same class for years because they can’t follow the normal curriculum.”

Sukacita - Seminar

Rather than working with children directly, Sukacita focuses on sharing knowledge and experience through workshops and seminars at schools and hospitals. The foundation also runs educational sessions for groups of parents of a child with an intellectual disability. The gatherings are conducted in collaboration with L.K. Suryani (Suryani Institute for Mental Health).

In November 2014, the foundation launched a book for teachers, parents and caretakers of children with special needs. Anak Unik (Unique Child) explains an intellectual disability from the perspective of a child who is trying to understand the world around him and often cannot comprehend what is expected of him. “The book is very practical and easy to follow,” says Onderwater. “It explains how the child perceives the world, and why he sometimes reacts with frustration at not being understood.”

Sukacita also provides guidance to Graha Anak Unik, a local school that welcomes children with an intellectual disability. The centre focuses on increasing each child’s confidence through play-and-learn groups. Many of the children involved in the project have been deemed unteachable by other institutions, yet here they have been able to thrive and achieve their full potential. “We saw a huge shift in perspective at Graha Anak Unik after we joined the project. The teachers and parents learned to see their children as unique. As unique children with potential,” Onderwater says.

While some schools are very receptive to Sukacita’s programme and benefit from the organization’s assistance, Onderwater says that things are not always so simple. “While we work with the Ministry of Education, it has not been easy for Sukacita to implement our programme at government schools because they follow a set Indonesian curriculum,” she says. “Luckily, there are enough other initiatives, like local private schools, groups of parents or medical staff of a puskesmas (community health clinic) who are happy to work with Sukacita. The teachers of SLB schools in Bali have also joined some of Sukacita’s seminars and were very interested in our approach to children with an intellectual disability.”

While Sukacita hopes to keep sharing information and their experiences, Onderwater says that the organization’s ultimate goal is to one day become redundant. “We are very grateful for the input and effort of the Indonesian people with whom we collaborate. They are the ones who need to decide what is effective in this country’s particular context,” she says. “Our next goal is to give workshops and guest lectures at the Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia (University of Education) in Bandung as that is where the new generations of teachers for children with special needs are born.”

For more information visit

Donations welcome. Bank details: ABN AMRO Bank the Netherlands, tnv Stichting Sukacita, IBAN NL55ABNA0622696114
Or Yayasan Putra Sesana Bali, Bank Mandiri, Account number: 1450010138796, Branch: Veteran


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