Father Hugo Peter, director of the Tobias Social Welfare Foundation of Tainan Diocese. (ucanews.com photo)
A leading diocese in Taiwan is breathing a sigh of relief after a charity run, it organized to drum up funds and raise awareness of the issues it supports, looked destined to be a resounding flop before a sudden spike in interest saw the number of sign-ups multiply 10-fold in just a few days.
The Tobias Social Welfare Foundation of Tainan Diocese has scheduled its first Tobias Cup to kick off on May 26 in Hutoupei of Xinhua town in Tainan city, with the goal of raising US$670,000 (NT$20 million).
But interest was lackluster at first.
"Before I left for a meeting in the Vatican on April 8, we only had 100 applicants," the foundation's director, Father Hugo Peter, told ucanews.com.
"But when I returned to Taiwan on April 18 over 3,000 applicants had registered. This is very satisfactory. It shows Taiwan's human touch."
He said the fundraising part of the event was not as important as raising awareness of important social issues, but that the money would be useful in further aiding the charities that the church supports.
"I hope others get to know about [our foundation] and opt to help babies, children and adults with mental disabilities, disadvantaged families and the elderly," he said.
Hsu Kuorui is the executive director of the Ang Hia Tshu Running Association, which has conducted 40 charity activities and is assisting the Tobias foundation in organizing this year's run.
Hsu said many people had decided to lace up their running sneakers because they were inspired by Father Peter's dedication to helping disadvantaged ethnic groups in southern Taiwan, and wanted to play their part.
"They even called up to register and wanted to make a pledge to the foundation. All of this gives great encouragement to the father and to special education teachers in Taiwan," Hsu said.
Father Peter, of the Belgian-run Societas Auxiliarium Missionum, was ordained in 1970 in Switzerland and moved to Taiwan the following year.
With the encouragement and support of his friends and the church, he enrolled in National Taiwan Normal University's Department of Fine Arts. After graduating in 1979 he traveled to the Penghu (or Pescadores) Islands, an archipelago of 90 islands in the Taiwan Strait, at the invitation of fellow priests and remained there for the next 13 years.
While he was there he volunteered in his spare time to teach painting, arts and crafts to students with special needs at the Huimin Opportunity Center. This was the beginning of his long mission to help people with disabilities.
After completing his missionary work in Penghu, he was invited by Bishop Joseph Cheng Tsai-fa of Tainan Diocese to serve as director of the St. Raphael Opportunity Center in Tainan.
Father Peter accepted and thus embarked on a career working full-time with the disabled — a role he still relishes and is actively engaged in some 26 years later.
Sensing he needed to further his studies to provide a higher level of care and service for his new wards, he later enrolled to study about special-needs education at Tunghai University, also in Taiwan.
Since the 1990s, the St. Raphael Opportunity Center has been taking care of the education of children with special needs from kindergarten to age 6.
It has gained a reputation for pioneering early childhood care and educational services in Taiwan, bolstered by a team of professionals assisting with children's cognitive, linguistic, and emotional development.
Under Father Peter's leadership, its early childhood services have expanded over the years and in 2006, St. Raphael set up the Guangming Early Intervention and Education Center.
As its programs continued to expand, it became clear that the center would soon outgrow both its humble roots and the legal framework under which St. Raphael's operated.
As such, its operators realized they would have to reestablish the agency as an independent foundation in order to continue providing its services within the parameters of Taiwan's legal code.
At that time, Father Peter was 66 years old and looking at hanging up his frock.
"I was intending to retire and had been preparing for that moment for about a year," he said.
But things changed when Tainan Bishop Bosco Lin Chin-an gave him one final mission — to raise US$340,000 (NT$10 million) in funds to boost the foundation's coffers so it could keep caring for the neglected and underprivileged.
Father Peter recalls how one Buddhist couple made a generous donation of nearly a quarter of a million dollars and asked their friends to also reach into their pockets to make a pledge.
The priest scrambled to meet all of the legal and bureaucratic requirements and, after 12 months of hard work and preparation, the Tobias Social Welfare Foundation was established in 2010.
It was based on the principle of safeguarding "dignity for all."
"Dignity is bestowed by God, and no one can be deprived of it. Everyone, regardless of their physical and mental conditions, can feel love and respect," Father Peter said.
With the support of the Tainan City government, the foundation set up Taiwan's first fitness center designed for people with disabilities.
Meanwhile, the priest has also been working tirelessly to provide personalized care for the foundation's young wards.
For example, it now sends its staff to the homes of those whose mobility is extremely restricted due to congenital or other problems, helping them to bathe and feed themselves.
The priest said he cares equally for all of those who now fall under his de factor protection or patronage.
While some members of society may discard or overlook them based on their physical or mental impediments, he sees them as fragile flowers that can bloom under his care.
Several years ago he even designed a special logo for St. Raphael's featuring an imperfectly formed lotus to highlight both their plight and their potential.
"They are all like lotus flowers," he said. "Even when they are not perfect, they each have their own unique beauty."