Mission work can be an eye-opening experience. Here, a volunteer shares his experience helping the mentally and physically disabled in Malacca.A youth feeding a resident of Happiness Centre for the mentally and physically disabled.
As our buses pulled over at a centre for the mentally-disabled, I wondered what it would be like meeting people who had impaired intellectual and physical functioning. Mr Roy Collar, founder of the centre called Happiness Centre, and Brother Celestine Toh, received us warmly.
I was there accompanying a group of youth from the Redemptorist Youth Ministry from Novena Church. Led by Redemptorist Father Francis Vijayan, we visited the Happiness Centre in Malacca from Dec 17-21 as part of a mission trip to expose ourselves to the world, and to help the less privileged and disadvantaged.
After a short briefing, I decided to go look around inside the centre. It was relatively clean. As I looked around, not knowing what to expect, I immediately noticed a boy on a bed. He had skinny arms and legs with very little muscle mass. His eyes stared blankly at the ceiling and he never moved. For a moment as I looked at him, the feeling of helplessness crept in. I didn’t know if I was equipped to help him. That image and feeling stayed with me for the rest of the day.
On our first day, I was asked to help clean the beds. I noticed spots of vomit and saliva left on the bed frames and there was also a strange but light odour in the dormitory. As I cleaned, I noticed that the occupant of the bed was drooling. I struggled, not knowing whether I should clean it, as he was likely to mess it up again. In the end, I told myself, “Why come if you are not going to do your best?”
So, I cleaned the bed frames as best I could and went on to the other rooms.
During my conversation with Mr Collar, I asked him what made him want to start a centre for the mentally disabled.
“The Holy Spirit,” he replied. For a moment those words gripped me. Seeing the Holy Spirit at work in retreats is one thing, but seeing the Holy Spirit inspire people to give their lives to feed and care for disadvantaged people in the most ordinary way ... those three words weren’t what I had expected.
“When I first started, I knew of people who had children with such disabilities. Some of them were unwanted and they would have been abandoned. So, in 2000, I thought I should do something ... It has been 18 years since,” Mr Collar said.
“What are the problems you would face running this place?” I asked.
“Oh plenty. Some of the children need 24/7 attention. Some of them are blind, some have cerebral palsy and others have mental disorders. When they first arrive, we don’t know what they will do. After a while, we learn their habits and adapt to them ... we teach them how to eat, how to go to the toilet, how to change themselves.”
For most of our second day was spent cleaning the drains at the centre. Apart from the odour and some black gunk, the cleaning was not that bad.
Br Celestine invited Indra, the home’s resident cook to share her story. Indra had an arranged marriage which saw her giving birth to three kids before she went through a divorce. Struggling to raise them by herself, she found a job at the home as their cook and has been there for about 17 years. Tears flowed as she spoke of the hardship of those days. Today, her children are all grown up and have asked her to retire but Indra said she could not bear to part with the residents there.
On our last day, we sang Christmas carols for the residents and played games with them. It was also my group’s turn to take two residents around the neighbouring village for a short walk. Along the way, we met a friendly elderly couple and chatted with them. One of the residents, Steve, was in his wheelchair and left near a dog that was locked in a doghouse. The dog suddenly growled and barked which shocked Steve. Seeing this, Shaun, the other resident, burst out laughing and it was all good fun. That look of pure childish joy in Shaun’s face made me giggle. It was nice to know that whatever problems they had, they were still capable of a good laugh.
As I sat in our bus ready to leave the centre, I pondered on all my expectations in life and came to a conclusion – happiness is not defined by our material possessions. Look at the residents of Happiness Centre, their joy, even in their helpless state, was a stark contrast to how we value our happiness based on our possessions and for a moment, I felt ashamed. Perhaps as the new year unfolds, my resolution would be to be content and appreciative.