IN 1982, a group of local and European women in Miri came together with one purpose – to help children with special needs and their families in coping with them.
“I wasn’t with the group at that time but they comprised local women, including Datin Judy Morshidi, and a number of European women living in Miri.
“The group reached out to families with special needs children and visited them at their homes. They looked after the children at the then Red Crescent headquarters and tried to teach them basic things such as recognising colours and so on,” recalled Liza Chai, chairperson of Miri Sunflower Centre.
Under their care back then were five to six physically and mentally handicapped children. But as word got around that the Red Crescent were looking after these children, more and more families sought their help.
Not long after that, Chai became part of the group.
With more families coming forward, the number of children soon grew to 35, and in 1984, the group formed a special committee to look after them.
Chai was appointed the chairperson – a post she still holds today. Some of the women also remain in the committee and have been helping the Miri Sunflower Centre in their own ways.
With more children coming in, the committee had to look for a proper place to operate – so their first location was Stella Maris Hall at St Joseph Primary School in Miri.
“Parents started sending their children to us instead of us visiting their homes. We were also getting more equipment such as wheelchairs, and things for the kids to do. Private and corporate bodies as well as members of the public started to donate, mostly in kind,” she said.
When the number of children grew to almost 60, Chai said they had to find a bigger place and the committee decided to rent a house in Pujut 2.
After moving in, the Centre employed their first three full-time staff. The rest of the helpers were volunteers.
Then they started raising funds mainly through charity sales and food fairs, to cover the rentals and other operating costs.
In 1992, the committee received a plot of land from the government to put up their building. Subsequently, they moved into their present premises — the Sunfower Centre — at Jalan Bulan Sabit and continued to provide education and rehabilitation for the children.
According to Chai, when they first started, there was no particular age requirement and they took in anyone they could. The youngest were about 10 to 15 years old.
“Much later, after we moved into our present place, we became more organised and created a structure. The age-range for those accepted started from zero — meaning babies. We set 30 as the age limit.
“However, we realise some of the students at the Centre are still able to work until above 40. In fact, we have a 43-year-old Down-Syndrome girl working in the laundry section and is still getting allowance from the Centre. So eventually, we may let them carry on until retirement age,” she said.
Apart from training the residents to handle basic daily things, the Centre also teaches them working and living skills.
As such, the Centre not only provides “shelter employment” but also help the students get jobs outside. Now, there are 114 students registered with the Centre.
“Once ready, they can take up jobs at the Centre like doing laundry, grass cutting as well as packaging sauces and tissues for KFC restaurants,” Chai revealed.
According to her, the Centre has three washing machines and one dryer and it provides laundry services to Mega Hotel, Gymkhana Club and Somerset Hotel in Miri.
Now, 14 students under the “shelter employment” programme are paid monthly allowances.
“For those capable of working outside the Centre, we help them to find companies willing to take them in. They will be monitored through updates to Centre’s coordinator from time to time.
“This is to ensure the students are well treated by their employers. But if they’re unable to perform their work, the Centre will replace them. At the moment we have three students working at the laundry department of Mega Hotel, one at Jasmine Café, two at a KFC restaurant and one in a McDonald’s outlet.
“They are all paid by the companies that employ them. We have a coordinator to monitor their progress and ensure they are getting paid,” Chai explained.
She said it was easier for the Centre to help the students find jobs than for parents to do it on their own, adding: “The Centre can always help them with that. It’s easier that way.”
All the students will be trained before they start working in the Centre or outside. Apart from those working, the rest are trained in various sports as the Centre is also involved in the special Olympic.
“In fact, one of our students, Clarence Mika Junis, participated in a swimming event during the Special Olympic Los Angeles two years ago.
“Even though not a student at the Centre, he has returned to work as a swimming coach,” Chai disclosed.
She said special children could be detected by hospitals as early as childbirth and the hospital authorities would advise and provide their parents with information on where they could register their children to get the right education and rehabilitation.
“We have six students in the waiting list for next year. Three are from SMK St Joseph special education classes — Forms Three and Five.
Their parents have registered them for next year.”
Chai added that the Sunflower Centre used to receive contributions from parents with children being rehabilitated there — RM50 for one whole day and RM30 for half day. But since coming under the Community-Based Rehabilitation Centre’s (PDK) module five years ago, the Centre isn’t charging anymore. However, there is a charge for transportation services to cover fuel costs.
“We survive on public generosity. We do have donations but if we run out of funds, we’ll seek assistance from the Red Crescent. After all, we’re under them.
“So far, fingers crossed — we’ve been managing our expenditure quite okay,” she said.
Now, the Centre has 15 staffers, including two drivers, and still needs three teachers.
Chai said to become a teacher at the Centre, one must be “very patient and caring” — the most important attributes she would look for when employing teachers.
“There is no such thing as hitting or pinching the children. If I catch anybody doing that, I will recommend immediate dismissal.
“Here, our teachers learn through experience by being with our students every day. Of course, we also send them for courses. But it’s important there must be dedication to job,” she stressed.
Chai is hoping to start a project to help the adult students at the Centre become more independent by being able to take care of themselves with minimal supervision.
She made a trip to Ipoh to see and learn how it’s done. Most of the parents agree with her proposal to let the students live a normal life at the Centre.
“For the project, we did look around to rent a house but the rentals can be quite high. So we’re thinking of putting up a hostel within our compound. We still have some more space and a dormitory with four beds and wardrobes would be good. We already have kitchens, toilets and bathrooms.
“Let them live on their own here. In the morning, they’ll get up by themselves, organise and go to work. But we do need a superior to watch over them,” she said.
Chai revealed they already had some funds, donated by the public, to start the project but were doing the paperwork to show the project could be viable, noting: “The society is a bit skeptical.”
Hopefully, she added, the project could take off by end of year.