07/15/2004, 00.00
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Church helps both children with handicaps and their parents

Ulaanbaatar (AsiaNews/UCAN) – In Mongolia, a new Catholic Centre will educate and tutor children living with mental and physical disabilities thus helping their development and integration into society. Last July 3, the Institute responsible for the new Centre moved out of the small room it was using hitherto, which had been made available by the Verbist Street Children Centre, and moved into new premises in Mongolia's capital. The centre is managed by director Sister Nellie Zarraga, from the Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns, and employs four special needs teachers trained by Belgian volunteer Benedict Lecompt.

According to Sister Zarraga, "even though this so-called integration may never be achieved for these children, our goal is to assist them in their development and help them integrate into society." Last year, the four teachers worked with three autistic children and five slow learners, she said, but "it is hard to know right now how the next school term may change."

One teacher, Altan-Od, said that compared to the old "very small and quite inadequate place," the new facilities are "the ideal arrangement for our work." "It will be good to start the new school term in this place with a large gym, play room, a separate room for autistic children, and a morning greeting area."

The Centre also wants to increase awareness among parents and get them more involved. Even so, some parents do not fully cooperate; others just use the centre as a place to dump their children when they need to or else they do not fully understand the value of the programmes and their goals. "In such cases," Sister Zarraga remarked, "the child gets extremely confused and does not develop despite the efforts of our teachers." In order to motivate parents we ask them to become involved. Every month, teachers invite parents to talk about their child's situation. They take a day off from work and spend it at the Centre. "The parents," said Oyuntuya, another teacher, "go through the activities and thereby learn a lot."

There are no exact figures as to how many mentally challenged people there are in Mongolia. Some international estimates put the number at about 10% in a country of just over 2.5 million people.  Mongolia's higher than average rates are probably due to high rates of intermarriage among closely-related people, poverty, and, in some areas, malnutrition of mothers.

According to UNICEF data, 25% of all Mongolian children under 5 show some signs of slow development, 6%  show sign of physical wasting, 13% is underweight (8% at birth). Infant mortality stands at 5.8/1000 in the first year, and 7.1/1000 in the first five year. (MR)

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