Sunday, June 24, 2007

A friend to the disabled

UNIVERSITI Malaya Bachelor of Science student Amy Wong Jia Hui did not start out doing volunteer work because of some dramatic experience or driving passion. She did it simply because she was appointed Social Concerns head in her university's Christian Fellowship society.

The society decided to adopt the non-profit Beautiful Gate Foundation for the Disabled as an organisation to help and support.

Amy helping Beautiful Gate resident Siew Yin who suffers from ‘spina bifida’. – AZLINA ABDULLAH / The Star

Twice a year, she would take groups of students to visit the residents and help out in their charity efforts by selling old books in the SS2 market, or participate in their camps during the semester break.

“It used to be a duty as I was voted into the post,” muses Amy. “These days, I visit them whenever I'm free, I hang out with them when they call me out to go yum cha (get a drink).”

She mostly helps out at the Beautiful Gate Career Development Centre for the Disabled, where residents undergo training such as computer and English courses and are encouraged to find jobs and be independent.

A student volunteer for a year now, she has heard many stories from her disabled friends.

“I met one woman who was able-bodied until she was in her early 20s,” she recalls. “When she became pregnant, the doctor told her that she had a genetic problem and had to either abort the baby or have something go very wrong with her nerves.

“She chose to give birth to the baby.

“The baby is fine but she can't walk now and has to use a wheelchair.”

It is stories like these that keep her motivated and change her outlook on life.

“They are so energetic and determined to live,” she says in earnest. “I used to get depressed over exam results but now, I realise that there is more to life, a purpose in living.”

Being around the disabled has taught her many things. For instance, she never knew how difficult it was to manoeuvre a wheelchair till she had to participate in a game involving wheelchairs in a Be An Angel camp, designed to engage the disabled with the able-bodied and to teach the latter how to assist the former.

“It was tough for me. My hands were in pain,” says Amy. “But I now understand how they feel.”

Being able-bodied, Amy, 23, admits it is sometimes easy to take things for granted; she has become so familiar with the Beautiful Gate residents that she treats them like her able-bodied friends.

“I learnt that I should be sensitive with my words,” she explains. “I once tried to put a pair of socks onto my friend's feet and I said: 'Why don't you straighten your legs so it would be easier for me to do this?'

“She immediately scolded her legs, saying: 'Yeah, come on! Why don't you straighten?'

Student volunteers find out how difficult it is to manoeuvre a wheelchair at the ‘Be an Angel’ camp.

“I realised how rude I had been and felt horrible after that.”

At the end of the day, Amy realises that what most disabled people want is genuine friendship.

“Being a volunteer is not so much about helping them but just being their friend.”

She has now become like family to the Beautiful Gate residents, chatting casually and being teased mercilessly by the office staff.

“Amy comes and disturbs us!” jokes the centre's staff member Chong Kar Yee, herself a cerebral palsy sufferer. “But people like her are rare. She can bond well with people of different ages and gender.”

Unfortunately, Amy still finds that many are not interested in doing what she does and some even think that Beautiful Gate, which is dependant mostly on public donations, is rich.

“At a flea market where I was holding out donation boxes, people told me that everyone gave to Beautiful Gate, so they should have lots of money,” she says.

The Centre's coordinator Ng Chung Chiat, who has worked there for eight years, believes that awareness about disability issues in general is poor.

“We write to schools and colleges twice a year proposing talks or student visits to create awareness,” he says. “Only about five schools in the Klang Valley respond in a year.”

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Grateful for a new life

Story and photo by CHRISTINA TAN

SEVEN years ago, college student Thee Wan Chiee was hit by a motorbike when she was on her way home after supper with friends.

She suffered a broken skull and lost her vision as well as her sense of smell permanently.

After the accident which occurred at Jalan Banting-Klang on May 14, 2000, Thee, then 19, was unable to see and was forced to quit her studies at a college in Nilai, Negeri Sembilan.

Still thankful: Thee working at a computer with software specially designed for the blind.

“I couldn’t believe this had happened to me I was extremely frightened and confused to see only darkness when I opened my eyes,” said Thee, who is 26 now.

The first year after the accident was a tumultuous year for her.

She had to fight for her life following major surgery to repair her broken skull. She was in a coma for five days and hospitalised for a month.

She was also fighting with herself for a new lease of life.

“I can’t remember much about what happened that night except that there was lots of blood,”. Thee said, adding that she had very few memories of the whole episode.

“I took me some time to recognise my parents and two younger sisters, and to realise what had actually happened to me,” she said when met the Beautiful Gate centre for the disabled.

During the first month of her recovery, Thee said, she not only tried very hard to recall her memories, but also learnt to walk, like a toddler.

“It was several months before I could walk again, and a year before I was able to face the reality,” she said, adding that she was initially angry with God for what had happened to her and confined herself to her own room.

Thee said it was her mother’s grief and tears for her almost every night since the accident that pushed her to seek a new life.

“She has suffered so much for me and the only way to cheer her up – and those who care for me – is for me to be happy,” she said.

She walked out of her room and took up a one-year “beginner's course” at the School for the Blind in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, to learn some basic skills for daily living.

Although the tragedy had changed her life completely, Thee said, she had more friends than ever now.

Her old friends, ex-school mates and relatives, with whom she had lost contact for a long time, had called her and visited her in hospital and at home after reading about the accident in the newspapers.

Her relationship with her family had also become closer than before, she said, adding that her life was more complete and more independent now.

“So I have not lost much, actually,” she quipped.

In January, Thee started work as an accounts clerk at the Beautiful Gate disabled centre in Port Klang. She is grateful for the job opportunity and trust shown in her.

Lately, Thee said, she could see some colours. “This is probably due to the hope and happiness in me,” she said, adding that she had never given up hope that she would be able to see again.

“I’m waiting for an opportunity to return to college to further my studies and become a business-woman someday,” she added.

She hopes all motorists would be more careful and considerate because their actions could affect not only their own lives but also those of others.

“Not every one is as lucky as I am to be given a second chance to live,” she said.

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