My first conversation with Claudie was the most incredible conversation I have ever had in my life; it gave me hope for a better future for myself and for the world. It shed a light onto the dark times we are currently going through with the global pandemic. So, when I went for a second chat, I already knew that her words were going to paint a picture of a happier tomorrow.
She started by telling me how it all started 50 years ago when she was studying psychology in the south of France and came across an article that talked about using environmental enrichment on lab animals, written by Mark Rosenzweig.
She told me that when she wanted to talk to him phones were still attached to the walls. So I pictured Claudie, holding a telephone attached to a brick wall. Perhaps she was wearing a purple or black hat too. She told me that this was the conversation that made her want to switch her studies –“I’m a psychologist, I scratch where it hurts and ask, does this hurt?”– she cracks a joke as she’s telling me this portion of the Mendability story.
So instead, she went back to school for neuroscience.
She mentioned that at the time it was hard to go to university and say, “this is my major, where is the teacher I need to learn from?” As a result, she started creating her own tools and multi-sensory toys and tried things with her own children. “There was not much to learn in France, so I needed to move to America where science was more advanced,” she continues. Ever since then, Claudie has not stopped studying, not even now.
In 1980 Claudie started a new chapter in her life where she moved to Tahiti. She started working with the Ministry of Education there and continued to create a curriculum for exceptionally gifted children. Her studies focused on gifted children at birth and compared the values of nature vs. nurture. Along with conducting her study, she also built a school for adults, a school for people who had English as their second language, and a school for Tahitian kids as well.
Claudie was telling me all of this like she was telling me how her morning was going, humble and casual. In my head, I was seeing fireworks. She had achieved so much at that point in the story and we hadn’t even come close to when Mendability came to be.
She was doing everything in her power to create a better future for everyone around her while raising her children and working on her study.
So, when was Mendability created? – I asked. “Well I’m getting to it, you have to be patient!” – she said while laughing. She went on to tell me how at that point she had her 3rd child and moved back to France to prove her data. Until that point, the research that Claudie was studying was all done on animals in labs and she wanted to validate it on humans. Who better to fund her study but a big, child-focused company like Danone?
The results were unbelievable.
“You know how a child starts with crawling, then sits then stands, and afterward starts to walk? Well, what we were seeing was children who went from laying to standing up and walking!”- she says as she’s compelling me with the joy in her voice. She then told me how the increase of dopamine helped with all issues, so these children had a high understanding of empathy. They were witnessing children as young as 10 months old to show empathy and help other kids!
Another thing they started to use at the daycare centers in Claudie’s study was art. Generally, art has that impact on humans that you want to keep looking, but she told me about a specific experience that went beyond that.
“A little girl was looking at a photo of a ballet dancer and said to the nurse: ‘She is dancing! Do you hear the music?’ We had another child looking at Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom and after a while the child looked at the daycare staff and said: ‘Why is this so dark? It’s so sad”.
At that moment all I could think to myself was would I have ever thought that painting of Van Gogh’s bedroom was dark if I didn’t know that’s where he went crazy? When you look at the painting, the colors are not dark and do not even seem to imply sadness. It mostly shows simplicity, but what that kid saw was the emotions the artist was feeling, shown through his art.
I was almost speechless when I heard this story from Claudie, but I had so many questions. I have been reading about the science behind Sensory Enrichment for quite some time now, but knowing that what we see in movies about people whose brains are developed more than the average is achievable by treating the brain like a muscle and simply giving it a SPA like experience… I needed to get some air! So, I asked her to continue with the story and at this point, she had reached the move to Canada.
The government of Canada had reached out to her to do some training with hospital staff, especially Neonatal Intensive Care Units, and that’s how the Gordon-Pomares Centre came to be in 1998. Claudie started to help as many kids as she could with as many issues as she could. “I was working with 25 kids a year and I would take on as many more as I could”– she said.
I could hear in her voice how much she loved what she was doing. She had told me before that she loved working with kids, so this didn’t come as a surprise. However, the passion in her voice was like a hug. In this crazy world, there are people like her wanting to make lives better and they don’t spare anything. The center’s last location was in Calgary, Alberta before Mendability was pioneered as an online tool to be accessible to everyone worldwide. I asked Claudie what her best friend would say about her, she replied: ”well you have to have friends first; I don’t have time for friends. Last week one friend asked me that we should go for a walk and I said we absolutely should because I don’t remember when was the last time I went out!”
I have to ask, you dedicate all your time to your work, and you have 5 kids. How did you balance all of that?
“I mostly worked from home, and my family traveled with me wherever I went.”
What was the hardest challenge you faced as an entrepreneur?
“Many things, the role that the media played in this whole thing didn’t work out to our advantage. All I wanted to say was that autism is not a life sentence. Our dream is for these children to be able to express their true spontaneous selves, without the burden of feeling overwhelmed! People wouldn’t believe that something that small would help autism this much.”
That concluded my interview with Claudie and she left me with so many thoughts. She took her research and touched so many lives with it. She shaped a whole future for all those kids, a future that was presumed to have vanished when they got the diagnosis. She traveled to so many places, she kept a family of 5 kids going while helping so many other families to not fall apart. A hug, that’s what her words meant to me. When you are a kid a hug can stop you from crying, it can mend the pain from falling and cutting your knee. Her words were like that kind of hug. A hug that you can trust when times are as uncertain as they are right now in the world.