09/10/2023, 12.08
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Philippines: 'Hangop Kabataan,' 25 years of special love

by Santosh Digal

In Pagadian, South Zamboanga province, the foundation promoted by St. Columba missionaries celebrated its anniversary of supporting poor families with children with disabilities. Educational pathways, home care and help with job placement the activities brought forward. But above all, the elimination of prejudice.

Manila (AsiaNews) - On 8 September, an ecclesiastical foundation that takes care of children with special needs in the southern Philippines celebrated its 25th anniversary. Hangop Kabataan ("embracing children") - which is based in Pagadian, capital of the southern Zamboanga province - is a reality promoted by the Irish missionaries of Saint Columban and takes care of families in which there are children and young people with different disabilities.

Precisely on the occasion of the anniversary, several boys and girls eager to receive Jesus received their First Communion, during a joyful Eucharistic celebration. The ritual was followed by a touching program created by the staff, the children and their parents.

Fr. O'Malley, Saint Columban missionary and co-president of the foundation, told those present: "We thank all the staff, the local people, the parents and the collaborators who support us with generosity, attention and understanding. Children with special needs inspire a special love.”

Hangop Kabataan was founded 25 years ago by Fr. Michael Sinnott, a missionary of the Irish institute who has served the Philippines for more than 50 years in numerous parishes. After retiring as parish priest of Dumalinao, Fr. Sinnott started a community rehabilitation program for children with special needs.

In April 1998, visiting the various areas of the parish of San Jose in Pagadian City with the help of some lay people, he had counted as many as 47 children with special needs, most of whom came from poor families.

“We have brought together parents who have expressed the desire to start a specific school for their children. Being a community-based initiative, we teach parents and other family members how to support their children”, says one of the first collaborators of Fr. Sinnott, Jocelyn Ocariza-Efhan.

“Our role was to inspire them and provide them with resources they could not have gotten on their own.”

It began in August of that year, every morning as many as 24 children arrived at the institute. “I was the teacher of the nine deaf children-she recalls. "The other 15 pupils, who had learning difficulties, including Down syndrome and autism, were looked after by Emma Andales and Helen Nelmida”.

Every afternoon, staff members went to the homes of children who were physically unable to attend the center and invited their families to support the initiative. The institute accepted students with any disability except blindness. To help children become as independent as possible, Fr. Sinnott advised parents to pay attention to their needs, their education and their general well-being.

Hangop Kabataan still offers three different types of services: the first is for children who go to school and can follow lessons from Monday to Friday.

They are divided into five groups according to their needs and abilities. The blue class is made up of autistic children who cannot sit still in class and therefore require the teacher's full attention. Autistic children who are able to follow some verbal instructions, to produce simple texts and drawings and to improve their motor skills constitute the yellow class.

Children with other difficulties who can concentrate, write their names and copy words are placed in the pink class: staff help them prepare to manage integration in a mainstream school. Children with different disabilities who are part of the green class are taught to prepare the daily snack for the Hangop children. The purple class teaches some academic subjects such as fundamental mathematics and character development. As part of the livelihood projects, children receive training in planting and caring for flowers and trees.

A second category includes children who live at home and cannot visit the center due to the severity of their disabilities. Every afternoon, two members of staff are assigned to visit homes to conduct exercises and lessons and to motivate families to continue providing the best possible care for their children.

Lastly, the deaf club is the third group: it is made up of people who wish to look for a job in order to be able, even minimally, to support their family. Five years ago, the city government temporarily hired three members and one of them got a job at a local fast-food restaurant. Every second Saturday of the month, the Deaf Club meets in the center to receive input, seminars and socialize to help them grow in autonomy and participate in society as responsible citizens.

"I love what I do," says Ocariza-Efhan, "The kids are very affectionate. They are more jovial than high school students. They are not vindictive. When we notice even a small improvement in a child, it gives us great comfort. It is a joy to know that they can read now, whereas when they were enrolled in regular schools, along with everyone else, they did not get much attention because of the large number of children." That is why it remains painful to sometimes see these children humiliated by others, seeing them labeled as "abnormal" or "crazy." "We have to teach them to improve their position and be treated as merchants in the community," concludes the Hangop Kabataan worker.


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