A Place for Everyone

Fr. Michael Sinnott
August 24, 2010
Center Supports Children and Parents

We started a center for children with special needs, called the Hangop Kabataan Foundation, in 1998, in Pagadian City, Philippines. Hangop means to reach out or embrace and kabataan means children.

Fr. Michael Sinnott and a student

Fr. Michael Sinnott and a student

Prior to starting the center, I had worked in parishes all my life where I often came across children with special needs. Unfortunately, in the whole province of Zamboanga del Sur, nothing was being done for these children. I wanted to do something for them but never had the time while I was involved in parish work.

When I finished in the parish I proposed to my superiors and the bishop that we try to start something for these children. We started by conducting a survey in the parish of San Jose in the city to find out how many children with special needs were living in the parish. I was assistant priest there at the time. We found 37 children with special needs.

We had only two teachers in the beginning, so I decided we had enough children to begin the program. As the program became more established, others began to apply, and we never refused anybody.

Before we started, we called a meeting of all the parents to find out what they wanted us to do for their children. They wanted us to start a school. Any meeting here where people don’t know one another usually starts off with what is called a pagila-ila. Each person stands up and introduces himself or herself. Each introduction usually takes less than a minute.

The first few parents introduced themselves very briefly but, as the introductions went on, each one got longer and longer as they talked about their child and the problems they had to deal with and how they felt helpless to do anything about the problems. In all, it took two-and-a-half-hours for this introductory session, but when the parents had finished you could almost feel thesense of belief in the room because this was the first time they had been able to share their problems with an audience that both understood and was sympathetic.

Students proudly display their artwork.

Students proudly display their artwork.

Currently we have approximately 60 children who come to the center every day. We have a vehicle that collects them and delivers them to their homes after class. The disabilities manifested by the  children at the center include autism, hearing impairment, cerebral palsy and other physical and mental handicaps. All the children who are capable of it are prepared for mainstream education. We have placed 21 children in regular school since we began the program. For the children who will not benefit much from academic education, we give as much as they are capable of handling. We try to make them as independent as possible with regard to their own personal needs and bring them to their fullest potential. Often this involves teaching them very basic things like brushing their teeth, cutting their nails, dressing themselves, personal hygiene and sometimes even toilet training with the younger ones.

We also teach them some simple cooking and housework. The center employs five full time staff members working with the children, one bookkeeper/ secretary, one part time vocational teacher and a driver/maintenance man. The vocational teacher works with those who are capable of doing livelihood projects. The students make articles for sale and share in the profit from the sale of them.

The students in the vocational program also cook the snacks for the children every day. Apart from those who come to the center each day, there are sixteen other children who are confined to their homes because of the severity of their disabilities.

A teacher, students and Fr. Michael

A teacher, students and Fr. Michael

The staff visits these children once a week for tutorials, therapy or both according to their needs. They also teach the parents and family members how best to help their children.

Before the center began, the children with disabilities were more or less hidden away in their homes because their parents did not know how to help them or how to do anything for them. Some parents were over-compensating by doing for their children what the children could be taught to do themselves. The parents felt a sense of relief and hope on realizing that something could be done for their children, and that they might also be able to help them become independent, at least with regard to their personal needs. Every year during the long summer break, we run a seminar in sign language for the families with deaf children so that they can communicate more easily.

Everyone involved in the program needs infinite patience. With some of the students it is an accomplishment to get them to count from one to five in a semester. We’ve been very lucky to have a very committed and dedicated staff. I tell them myself that this is a vocation, not a job.

Some of the children are very withdrawn and silent when they first come to us, and it is great to see them blossoming into laughing and spontaneous children who will run up to you with a hug when you come into the room. There is a great sense of community among the children. The older ones happily help out the youngsters.

All this has given me a great sense of satisfaction as I see the children doing things which they were not able to do before, especially witnessing the deaf students communicate in sign language. We have a club for deaf people which meets once a month and includes individuals who do not utilize our school program. They meet to socialize and are delighted to come together to share with each other.

The Hangop Kabataan community began with a simple goal – to aid children with special needs – and evolved into a community of faith and family, learning, caring and growing together.

Fr. Michael Sinnott lives and works in the Philippines.

This article first appeared in the August / September issue of Columban Mission.