Xi'an (AsiaNews/UCAN) The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, a religious order of nuns in the diocese of Xi'an, have been running the Xi'an Boai (universal love) child day-care centre since 2001.
Located in a former seminary in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province (900 km south of Beijing), Xi'an Boai currently has 17 children aged 6 to 12 and, although government-registered, it is not publicly funded.
Funding does remain a problem. School fees went up in 2004 to 330 yuan per month (US$ 40), but the nuns usually waive them for children from families with financial difficulties. For them education and meals are free.
According to Sister Lu Zhiwei, the centre's principal, local authorities and ordinary people have never accepted mental handicap for what it is up to now. Many parents simply denied and still deny that it exists and hide way their mentally challenged children. Others acknowledge the situation and are organising self-help activities.
There is much less discrimination now, Sister Lu added, but many of these children, especially in rural areas, receive no special education and are marginalised.
According to a survey by the China Disabled Person's Federation in 1987, there were more 10 million mentally challenged people in China, 5.39 million of them younger than 14.
Unfortunately she said, most parents must rush to work after bringing the children to school, and must rush to school to them home after a hard day with little time for them. Even on week-ends they have little time.
All seven nuns serving the kindergarten's 17 children are certified teachers in child education, but parents would like to see get some medical training.
"In the past, we had no experience in handling these children," Sister Lu Zhiwei acknowledged, "but parents were content as long as we served the children with a loving heart and kept them safe. Today, parents expect much more and insist that we become more professional."
However, there are no training programs available in the region. "All we can do is take relevant short-term courses, whenever available, to enhance our knowledge and skills," she said.