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Mentally impaired get a helping hand

Source: Updated: 2016-09-05
The door to Wanwan Care Center is always locked-on purpose. Ring the doorbell on the wall, and you will be welcomed by a mentally impaired "child"-he comes, opens the door, greets you with a quick "Hello" and runs away.

It's one of the many rehabilitation methods that Xu Qin has designed for the 26 disabled people at the center. Although most are in their 20s, they have the mental ability of children.

The 52-year-old Xu is the mother of a mentally impaired son, and the founder of the first private nonprofit care center for such people in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. She was named "the most beautiful person" for helping the disabled by the provincial government in 2015.

Xu knows the best way to help her charges is not only by providing them with care, but also teaching them life skills and providing them with jobs.

"The ultimate goal is that maybe one day they will no longer need help," says Xu.

Twenty-five years ago, Xu's son, Gao Hongyi, suffered brain damage due to an accident. Xu then quit her job to look after him and took him to the Hangzhou Yang Lingzi Special Education School.

After her son finished special education in 2009, there was no suitable place for him to go.

Xu still remembers her son's wish when he was asked, who do you want to be with after graduation? "His speech was limited but he said two words-classmates and teachers."

So together with other parents and his former teacher, Xu founded a small day care for her son and six others, which became the Wanwan Care Center two years later.

The name "Wanwan" connotes a harbor for the imperfect. It is inspired by a book written by Saburo Shochi, who founded Japan's first special education school in 1954.

At first, Xu's team tried to follow the curriculum of Yang Lingzi Special Education School, but it didn't work well. So they rented an apartment and started to teach basic life skills.

"Since then, we have been exploring a path of integrated treatment of teaching in reallife situations," says Xu.

"Every day, we do grocery shopping, cooking, laundry with the youngsters together."

Day after day, Xu and the teachers at the care center repeat lessons in their classroom of life.

"Slowly, they learn," says Xu. "Even when they show no improvement, it's still good news for us, because the daily practice and interaction may have already prevented the illness from getting worse."

The center has won recognition over time, and it moved to its current location in 2014, which is on the second floor of Jianggan district's Disabled Person's Federation. The space is provided by the local government for free.

Xu started vocational programs that aim to help the mentally disabled take steps toward self-reliance.

The center opened a bookstore, then a convenience store and then a car wash in the neighborhood, so that some of those with better skills can work as cashiers or help wash the cars.

Jin Yan, who teaches the patients to be cashiers at the center, says: "We didn't make it special from other stores.

"For those who came to our store for the first time, after they learned about our center, they were all supportive and waited for our children to finish the work."

Those who are still not capable of working in the stores make simple handicrafts, which are sold in the store.

"As more people in the neighboring communities get to know us, they become our patrons," Xu says proudly.

Speaking about the public response to the project, Xu says many government officials, company workers and university students from home and abroad help run the stores.

Some volunteers have even become full-time staff of the center, she says.

Zhuo Li gave up her work in an advertising company and came to the center earlier this year.

"I used to come once or twice a week as a volunteer, and gradually I have bonded with these 'children'-I miss them if I don't have the time to come," says Zhuo.

"The most beautiful thing of working here full time is being able to see them improve."

Yang Zhangliang, a car wash worker who joined the center, says: "I taught them how to wash a car, but they taught me how to be more patient.

"After acquiring the skill, they wash cars with great meticulousness."

But there are also failed programs. Xu once bought several sewing machines for stitching aprons, but it turned out that the skill was too difficult for disabled people.

What Xu hopes is that the model of Wanwan can be copied by others, so as to benefit more people with such disabilities.

Through her vocational programs, Xu wants not only to help the mentally impaired themselves, but also to correct public misconceptions about them.

"I want to break the stereotypical attitude toward disabled people-that all they need is people's sympathy and donations," she says.

"They need respect and self-esteem as well."

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