Wednesday April 1, 2009
Sharing and caring
By WONG WEI YUEN
A student’s experience as a volunteer working with people with learning disabilities, opened up a whole new world to her.
I HAVE always been socially aware of the disabled. However, my perspective changed recently following a stint as a volunteer with Dignity and Services (D&S), an advocacy movement for persons with learning disabilities and their families.
I was back home on summer break and decided to spend some weekends in the company of a bunch of youngsters with learning disabilities.
Not only have I gained fresh insight into their world, but I have also learnt so much from them. Now just the thought of my new friends is enough to make me smile.
Under the auspices of D&S, these youngsters meet up every weekend in a house in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, where they are given the opportunity to interact with each other and the rest of the community.
They work on projects and plan activities such as recycling household discards. The group is also busy preparing to participate in the Orange run which will be held middle of this month. It is all about learning basic life skills and being part of the community.
My first encounter with them was on the day they were having a garage sale which they organise regularly to raise funds for the rental and upkeep of the house.
I was rather apprehensive as I had no experience working with the disabled. I was afraid I would not know how to respond to them, or if I was even capable of making any connection. However, I was welcomed with such warmth after the initial shyness that I don’t think I have ever met such a jolly bunch of courteous, young people. I knew instantly that my time with them was going to be an exciting one.
They were taking a trip to Janda Baik, Pahang, the following day and invited me to join them. I was told that among the many things that pose a challenge to this group was the outdoors.
There was never a dull moment when I was with them, be it in conversation, during meal times or doing simple tasks.
Above all, the fellowship was refreshing as we spent the night sleeping under makeshift mosquito nets, sans electricity and hot water supply.
Most of the activities or excursions that were planned were in accordance with the D&S mission which is to develop members to become independent individuals with good self-esteem, dignity and respect so that they can lead meaningful lives in the community.
What I realised was that above all that we think and know, it is in the very act of treating and respecting them as individuals that they have the right environment to grow.
My mindset underwent a paradigm shift as I mingled with them.
Society tends to spoonfeed the disabled, probably out of pity, but this will only cause them to be trapped in their own world and dependant on others.
I was once told that all of us have gifts waiting to be harvested. And towards this end, D&S does a spendid job of encouraging these youths to discover the talents inherent in each of them.
A beautiful canvas painting takes pride of place in the Taman Tun Dr Ismail house – a testament to the spirit of optimism and love that goes into moulding these young lives to their full potential.
Upon closer inspection, the painting reveals a fascinating composition of the life story of each budding “artist.” Each had the chance to express his or her symbol of joy on the 2m by 1.5m canvas.
It was interesting, too, to see how each of them has a unique way of executing simple tasks. For example, a Chinese New Year party was planned for one weekend and they set about preparing decorations.
Watching them concentrating on their art and craft was fascinating. Each had a different way of cutting paper to make paper lanterns, yet all were working single-mindedly towards a common goal.
Another thing that kept the atmosphere happy and cheerful in the house was the group’s delightful singing and dancing, more so with the gift of a karaoke set.
Fun and games apart, the group is also exposed to educational materials.
Every other weekend was spent listening to talks on a variety of issues such as health and social values, organised specially for them. Other activities included sleepovers where each member brought along a favourite pillow or sleeping bag.
Staff members carry out their duties with strict instructions not to spoonfeed or spoil these youths. I was surprised at how quickly they caught on when taught and encouraged in unconventional ways.
I felt so encouraged by their enthusiasm for simple tasks like baking. I brought a cake recipe with ingredients and baking paraphernalia one weekend, and the group was so excited. Everyone had a great time as each tried their hand at mixing the ingredients. The unity among the group was obvious, and I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.
The staff members of D&S also instilled a sense of discipline in these youths to ensure that courtesy and good conduct are emphasised when carrying out everyday chores such as mopping the floor, washing dishes and wiping the table.
Through simple chores, these youths learn basic survival skills necessary to enable them to be independent. Over the 12 weekends that I was with them, it was rewarding to see their progress.
Towards the end of my stint, I was fortunate to meet the families of the group when they all gathered for a Chinese New Year party at the house.
I gained a new perspective on each individual after meeting their families. It was a lovely night filled with much laughter and, of course, food.
It is amazing how quickly time passes when you are having fun. Soon it was time for me to return to my studies abroad. Before I left, my new friends presented me with a card. The contents were a literal tear-jerker for me. Had I formed an attachment with them? Yes, most definitely, and I believe the feeling is mutual.
All said, I had a wonderful experience as a volunteer. It enabled me to touch lives, and I learnt about selflessness, compassion, discipline and willpower. I am sure that I have learnt more from these youths than they from me. They left a lasting impression on me.
My farewell was a tearful one and I will always have tender memories of the time I spent there which has taken me a step closer to defining who I am and what I want to be.
One Voice is a monthly column which serves as a platform for professionals, parents and careproviders of children with learning difficulties. Feedback on the column can be sent to email@example.com. For enquiries of services and support groups, call Malaysian Care ( 03 9058 2102) or Dignity & Services ( 03-7725 5569).