Led by God, Dr Chen Shiling felt a calling to minister to the community
On her first day as a volunteer with a group of intellectually disabled (ID) children and adults, 17-year-old Chen Shiling was so frightened that she decided she was never coming back.
Yet she found herself inexplicably drawn to them before the day ended. So for the next six years, she returned every Sunday to interact and help out at MINDS (Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore) Youth Group.
She took a break from volunteering after graduating from the National University of Singapore at age 23 but connected with MINDS again five years ago. By then she had become a medical doctor.
Dr Chen told CatholicNews, “That year I felt very strongly that there was something out there in the community for me. So I went back to MINDS and said to them, “I’m a doctor now. What can I do for you?”
Now, with help from her physician husband Liam, Dr Chen serves people with intellectual disability (PWID) and credits God with leading her towards her ministry to this group.
She started organising medical health screenings after the meeting with MINDS. The team, which includes doctor and nurse friends, as well as medical students, offers general consultation and specialist support, such as dermatologists for skin problems.
Dr Chen has also started making home visits as part of her medical service to individuals with ID.
More recently, she also started conducting health screenings to clients of other voluntary welfare organisations like the Association for Persons with Special Needs (APSN) and Down Syndrome Association (DSA).
Said Dr Chen, “The more health screenings I did, the more I realised that it is not enough. The healthcare needs of PWIDs are just not met or they are very poorly met once they reach adulthood.”
She explained that children with ID have paediatricians to take care of them until they reach 18. But once they grow up, paediatricians will have to discharge them. This leaves them to navigate the system on their own.
The Adult Neurodevelopmental Service from the Institute of Mental Health provides excellent care for PWIDs with mental health needs, said Dr Chen. However, there are no doctors in Singapore dedicated to caring for the complex physical health of these people.
The health screenings and home visits for individuals with ID are only starting points. Dr Chen is looking towards setting up a centre offering comprehensive medical services for PWID. Helping parents plan for the future medical care of their ID children will also be an important service of that centre.
Looking back to the day she first came face to face with children and adults with ID, Dr Chen is convinced it was God who softened her heart towards them.
Recently, she registered Happee Hearts Movement as a non-profit entity, which creates awareness of and advocates for PWID.
The parishioner of the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary said, “God’s presence has been very clear. And He is very clearly directing me to do this work. He is right there, in the centre of it, leading the entire thing.”
And how does she feel about all the people she has been serving? “Throughout the years, every single time I encounter them, they keep giving me something very precious. They teach me about life, about love, about what it means to give. Essentially they teach what it means to be human. I encounter this every single time.”
On how the Catholic Church in Singapore could support her work, Dr Chen responded:
“I would love to see the Catholic community start understanding that people with intellectual disability are gifts to the world and have been specially chosen by God to play important roles in our lives. We must spread the awareness that they are not ‘mistakes of creation’ or ‘burdens’ placed on our society. To understand this, all we need to do is to open our hearts and encounter these gentle souls.”
‘Brother teaches me unconditional love’
John (not his real name) can sit still for hours listening and humming to children’s worship songs or watch Hi-5, an Australian television show popular with young children.
Except that John is no longer a child. At 33, he has the intellectual capacity of a two-year-old.
John belongs to a group of individuals in Singapore who are seldom seen in public due to their Intellectual Disabilities (ID).
Said his elder sister, Jenny: “The neighbours have called the police many times and even spoken to the Member of Parliament for our ward due to his shouting and tantrum throwing at night.
“This has caused added stress, fights and unhappiness in the family.”
But on a good day, he and Jenny would sit together watching television or singing his favourite children’s worship songs, “which are his way of connecting to God,” said Jenny.
Recently John was hospitalised due to a rare condition that attacks his immune system. During one of her visits, Jenny sang to him a line from a children’s worship song. Usually unable to hum beyond six notes, he managed to complete a whole line of the song. “He found comfort in it,” said the Catholic parishioner in the Serangoon area.
John was in the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital for two months. “We nearly lost him twice,” Jenny stated.
Those episodes taught her that “our life is in God’s hands,” said Jenny, adding how having John has been a source of grace. “He teaches me what is meant by unconditional love.”
While John’s family has stopped taking him to Church since he was six, Jenny suggests that the Church can welcome children with ID by conducting awareness programmes to educate parishoners, organise catecism classes that are catered to children with ID, and give ID children a special corner so they can attend church without distracting others.
A future for their special daughter
Before having their daughter Shui Shann, Mr William Teo and his wife, Mrs Emily Teo, were preoccupied with chasing the 5Cs.
Now they are busy trying to make life easier for her future. “She brought us down to realise that life is not all about that [5Cs],” Mr Teo said.
Shui Shann was diagnosed with Global Developmental Delay when she was 18 months.
In 2003, she enrolled in Yio Chu Kang Garden School, which is run by Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS). At the end of that year, Mr Teo and other parents in the school initiated a caregivers group. It was a platform for mutual support and parents raised concerns about their children’s lives after they leave the school.
These concerns later evolved into worries about how the children would cope when their parents were no longer able to care for them.
Said Mr Teo, “Having a good quality of life is about the ability to make choices, say, a choice of employment, social and recreational activities, accommodation, and so on. To have the ability to choose, there must be a range of options available.”
Mr and Mrs Teo are encouraging fellow parents to consider Permanency Planning. The term refers to the process of transitioning children in foster care to a more permanent care arrangement. In recent times, it has also been used to refer to arrangements for people with intellectual disability when their parents are no longer able to look after them.
“The caregiving ‘hat’ parents wear can be overwhelming,” said Mr Teo.
“As parents reach the age where they start worrying about their ability to take care of themselves, they find it difficult to pass this ‘hat’ along. However, if the ‘hat’ can be sliced into smaller pieces, different people or organisations can be found to take on the different responsibilities.”
Mr Teo feels that people with disability just need a little accommodation, not pity. He and Mrs Teo noticed that some parishioners seem to frown at people with intellectual disability in church.
“If we go to church we must go with a more open heart, be more accepting of others.” Mrs Teo said.
By Mel Diamse-Lee