Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A Beautiful Heart (Special Gifts from Special Children)

"New eyes see no race
The essence of a child
The essence..."

~"Shimmer" by Shawn Mullins

In high school, I used to stay away from students with Down Syndrome. They were labeled "special" kids and had their own "special" classes and didn't mingle with the rest of us. Some kids would make fun of them when they danced to music during lunch. Some were so mean as to call them "retards." But we, the non-retarded ones, could never muster up the courage to do what they did. I remember having a crush on an alumni who was working with these special students. From afar, I'd watch how he put a smile on their faces and thought he must have a special heart for these special people. I wanted to have a heart like him.

On Monday June 4, 2007, Anna took me and the same group of medical students to Ban Nontaphum, a home for disabled children ages 7 through 18.

HOPE Worldwide Thailand offers to teach computer classes here three days a week. But that day we toured the whole facility in the morning and spent time doing therapy for younger children in the afternoon. Ban Nontaphum was established thirty-five years ago and is a government agency. The home provides various services and activities such as therapy, sports training, and schooling. There was a wide range of disabilities: cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation, and physical disabilites.

One day while taking a bus to school in Huntington Beach, California, I remember seeing a kid with Down Syndrome and how he'd smile for no reasons. Maybe God created the smile on our faces so that we can give it away freely. This kid certainly did. I wondered if I were to smile as many times as he did, would I be happier? Or would people think I'm crazy?

Kids quickly responded to our presence. They got excited when we walked by their art class and couldn't wait to show us their works. The atmosphere at Ban Nontaphum was livelier than at the AIDS clinic. It didn't take much to make them smile. They clung onto us. One girl ran up to Dan, a med student, and held on to his hand. Dan is a big guy, 6'3", and the picture of him and the little girl was priceless. One boy in a wheel chair specifically asked Dan to take him back to the school after lunch. He wanted the big white man to do it.

All the med students seemed to enjoy this experience with the children, even Paige who had not been feeling well seemed to have fun playing with a boy who could barely sit or talk to her. She was patient with him and he smiled.

During therapy session, I got a chance to bond with a boy named George. When we first met, he was lying helplessly on a mat waiting for the worker to stretch his arms and legs that were tense and cramped up due to his conditions. He couldln't walk and when he sat on a wheel chair, his head fell forward and back bent, so it had to be strapped to the chair. At first I thought he was also mentally disabled because he didn't say anything. Then he turned to me and said 'hi' ,and we began our conversations.

He heard someone laughing and wanted to know who it was. I told him I didn't know the kid's name. Then someone gave him a snack and I asked if he wanted to eat it. He said after he was done with therapy. The whole time we talked he smiled a lot. At one point, I strechted his left arm and he said he was hurt. It was the only time he verbalized his pain. He had more problems with his left arm than his right, and it made it difficult for him to wheel his own chair because he couldn't use his left arm. He wanted to know my name and asked me if I could take him to the music room. We went to the music room and straight to the drums. It took a lot for him to hold a drumstick and each time he hit, he heaved his whole body. Even that, I could barely hear the sound. After awhile, I asked if he was bored. He smiled and said, "No, I'm starting to have fun." Later, he moved on to the piano and was banging on the black and white keys with his feeble right hand. Then he asked for a flute and blew into it with all his might. He was so excited to make all kinds of noise and wanted to know if I'd be back. I really didn't want to answer his question.

George is a smart kid with a beautiful heart trapped inside a disabled body. He helped me find a new kind of courage that I wanted to have since high school. I miss him. Thinking of him brings tears to my eyes.

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