Participating in a Meal

Ajay being fed by his caregiver.

When Holt’s nutrition initiatives coordinator, Aloura DiGiallonardo, visited one of Holt’s legacy partner care centers in India, she got to know 4-year-old Ajay — and she got to see him enjoy a meal for the first time.

Ajay* is a sweet young boy whose potential and personality were long unrealized. He lives in a care center in Pune, India and has cerebral palsy in addition to other physical and mental disabilities. He is almost 4 years old, but appears small and skinny for his age — a result of malnutrition. Ajay’s days are pretty uneventful: he lies in his crib and when he is fed, also while lying down, he is barely able to choke down his food.

But one day was different. On this day, he sat up in a chair for one of the first times ever. Although he can’t speak, the expression on his face and the light in his eyes seemed to clearly shout: “Hello world, here I am!”

This day took place in spring 2015 when Holt and the SPOON Foundation did a Safe Assessment of Feeding Environments (SAFE) training at Ajay’s care center as part of Holt’s Orphan Nutrition Program (ONP). During the SAFE training, orphanage caregivers are taught about safe feeding positions and methods for children depending upon the child’s age and special need. To demonstrate proper feeding positions, the trainers shined a spotlight on Ajay.

Like many other children with cerebral palsy or other special needs who are living in orphanages, Ajay had always been fed while lying down because his caregivers simply did not know that there was another way. They didn’t have the resources or training to help him sit up. And they didn’t know how to engage with him — to find ways to communicate with this unique and beautiful individual.

Aloura DiGiallonardo, Holt’s nutrition initiatives coordinator, was there to see the joyous moment when Ajay first sat up. Once he was stabilized in a chair, trainers fed him, demonstrating for the caregivers the correct way to do so. “He’s very slow and very messy and he takes a lot of convincing [when he eats],” Aloura says. “But for the first time, he wasn’t simply just tolerating his meal. He was participating in it.”

Aloura said that being fed in an upright position helped Ajay to see the world in an entirely different and better way. She said he laughed as he was being fed, absolutely thrilled with the attention he was receiving.

After the feeding, there was also a moment that deeply moved Ajay’s caregivers. Beth Williamson, SPOON’s occupational therapist, pulled out her phone and showed how Ajay could track the screen’s changes with his eyes. The caregivers immediately started to cry — it was the first time that they realized Ajay’s abilities, and that he, just like all other children, needed interaction and love.

“They just didn’t know,” says Aloura. “And they didn’t know how to do the things to make his response possible.”

Because of the ONP training, Ajay’s nutritional needs, body and spirit are now cared for in an entirely different way.

Megan Herriott | Staff Writer

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