Persistence and possibility

A Kiwanis-sponsored center in Malaysia helps young people living with disabilities explore their potential.

Story by Tony Knoderer

The Kiwanis CareHeart Centre is a 21st-century operation in many ways — including the most literal. Sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Taman Sentosa in Malaysia, the facility opened in June 2000, getting under way just as the new century was doing the same. 

Located in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, the CareHeart Centre began with a mission to provide education and training to students with disabilities. Ever since, participants’ lives have reflected modern developments in the education and training of young people with disabilities.

One of the most important principles is individuality. An applicant must be at least 12 years old — and education and training beyond primary and secondary education is based on the person’s strengths and interests. Some continue with vocational training. Others proceed to university education. All gain the skills and habits that make them appealing to potential employers.

But they also explore — and cultivate — their own interests and creativity. For instance, programs ranging from horticulture to the creative arts support people’s personal talents. As individual successes accumulated over the years, the Taman Sentosa Club even used the approach of the CareHeart Centre’s 20th anniversary to commemorate some of those stories in book form. The result was a 2020 publication called “Inspiring Stories.”

“Many believe there must be a formula in educating these special needs children,” Principal Koh Guan Hoe writes in the introduction. “It is actually not so simple. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are dealing with unique individuals, each different from the other.”

We’re highlighting a few of them in the following pages. One of them, On Yong Ching, was featured briefly in a 2016 Kiwanis magazine article about the Kiwanis CareHeart Centre. Like the others, his continuing story reflects the sense of possibility and persistence that animates the CareHeart Centre — and the spirit of Kiwanis service.  

Hanzhen Yap
When Hanzhen Yap was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of 2, a lot of the behavioral issues that had afflicted him — and mystified his parents — suddenly made sense. And once the disorder was identified, the path forward became clearer.

Through an intensive behavioral program, Yap slowly but surely showed improvement with basic skills, from eye contact and communication to daily living capabilities. But it was a moment as a toddler that opened the way to the creative adult he is today. 

Yap’s first words, according to his mother, Yvonne, were not “mama” or “dada” but a 1-2-3 count while he was playing with his father and brother. The three of them were throwing small, colorful balls to each other — and the repetition of colors and shapes sparked Hanzhen’s verbal outpouring, as well as his imagination. 

His penchant for repetition and detail were quickly identified as a useful tool. An advantage, not a disadvantage.

Through all the ups and downs of his development, that advantage has helped Yap become an accomplished artist. He sees and remembers the details of objects and then sketches those details with striking fidelity. In fact, he even catalogues his sketches with a numeric system. 

Yap is also a musician. As a teen, he won a talent competition by playing a Chinese love song, “The Moon Speaks My Heart,” on piano.  

His creative development owes a lot to the CareHeart Centre’s connection of his personal strengths to the outlets of drawing and music. And connection is important. In fact, Yap preserves his connection to Kiwanis as an adult. 

Among his showings and public appearances, he has shared his art at Kiwanis events over the years — from an exhibit at the 2014 Kiwanis International Convention in Tokyo to fundraisers by the Kiwanis Club of Singapore and a 2019 selection of art prints and pouch bags that were given to Swiss Kiwanians during a visit to the Kiwanis Singapore Delta Chapter’s offices.

Lee Wen
After a fall that caused a head injury and impaired her vision and the right side of her body when she was 3, Lee Wen devoted much of her youth and adolescence to developing basic skills. 

Through it all, her disabilities haven’t overshadowed her abilities — or prevented her from standing in the spotlight occasionally.

Now 31, Wen contributes to the kind of household work that gives her a sense of belonging among peers and family. From kitchen assistance to laundry and vacuuming, she takes part in necessary daily activities that help make her a valued part of a group. 

Wen joined the Kiwanis CareHeart Centre in 2014. She developed skills there — and learned new ones. She started working in the kitchen at the CareHeart Café. She learned to make floor mats and scented soaps. She participated in transactions involving currency.

She also got a showcase for another talent: singing. 

In fact, Wen performed at fundraising events, culminating in 2017 at a contest where she represented the CareHeart Centre — and was crowned champion. That proud moment for the center itself was also a jolt of confidence for Wen, kindling hope for a singing career.

George Quek
After speech delays, hyperactivity and academic struggles as a young boy, George Quek took his first violin lesson at age 5. It was meant to slow him down a bit. It ended up being a lasting passion — and a way for Quek to connect with others as he grew.

Ultimately diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and ADHD, he has faced complications with comprehending and fitting in over the years. But he has also impressed teachers and mentors with his intelligence and aptitude. 

Musical talent is one part of it: In his secondary school in Johor Bahru, Quek even played a few songs on his violin during Teachers Day.

Peer relationships, however, continued to be a struggle. At that age, other students were less interested in friendship than in getting him into daily trouble and taking advantage of his lack of social skills.

But Quek made it through — and a new phase of his life began. 

He attended junior college in Johor Bahru and learned information technology. Even better, he found fellow students who accepted and included him. Then he joined the CareHeart Centre in 2008 after finishing his college education. 

In 2010, a civil engineer taught him the basics of AutoCAD, an illustration tool for engineering work. Another skill was discovered — and the ability to apply it without supervision developed. In fact, Quek now works at an engineering consultancy firm.

It’s just one of the ways that life after CareHeart has launched him into an adulthood of independence and involvement. Quek has had a drivers license since 2013. He helps with home maintenance at his family’s house. He even joined a group for a 25-day Outward Bound course in 2018. 

For a guy who likes to go climbing on Sundays — and going for hikes up to 10 kilometers away from home — it’s no big surprise. But it’s no small thing for a young man who once faced obstacles that seemed to preclude the life he lives now.

Yong Ching
At a very early age, it was evident to Yong Ching’s parents that his behavior was different from that of most other kids. At 4 years old, he was still speaking single words at a time — rather than phrases and sentences. His attention was attracted by revolving objects such as ceiling fans. 

But he also loved — and had a talent for — drawing and music. And it helped that he was the kind of kid who could remember something for a long time after being told just once or twice.

Ultimately, Ching was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. An up-and-down educational trajectory then ensued, ultimately leading to the CareHeart Centre. 

At 7, he went to a school where the challenge of sitting still and keeping up with classroom work proved too much for his capacities at the time. But when he transferred to a school in Singapore that offered more focus on special needs, the teaching programs there led to progress in several subjects, including proficiency with the English language. 

After seven years at the school, Ching began attending the CareHeart Centre. His continuing development there was consistent with something his parents were told back at the time of his diagnosis: Kids with autism need structured learning, physical exercise and focused help from trained personnel. 

At the CareHeart Centre, the development of vocational and living skills increased his self-sufficiency. Even better, the training gave him an opportunity to integrate his new skills with his creativity. 

In fact, Ching’s flair for the creative arts has only increased in adulthood. The smart kid with a good memory and an aptitude for learning has become an accomplished artist and musician. 

With the help of a daily timetable that keeps him on track for his meals, lessons, exercise and more, he has also achieved an even more essential and important status: an independent, self-confident adult.

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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