The Yayasan Bhakti Luhur center in Dili run by the ALMA sisters is striving to make sure children with learning difficulties are not left behind by Timor Leste’s education system. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com)
It was a feeling of utter despair that engulfed Jose de Araujo and his wife when they found out 15 years ago that one of their two daughters had Down's syndrome.
She was three at the time and they were wondering why their daughter was not like other children the same age.
As she became older the family was still feeding, bathing and dressing her. They also had difficulty finding a school that would accept her.
De Araujo, who works for a government agency in Timor Leste's capital Dili, said he even took her to Bali in Indonesia for therapy in 2013, but, there was no noticeable improvement.
"I gave up and brought her back to Timor-Leste," he said.
However, seven months ago he stumbled upon Yayasan Bhakti Luhur, a center run by the Association of the Institute for Lay Missionaries — known as the ALMA Sisters — for people with disabilities and orphans.
"I asked the nuns if my daughter could join the other kids for therapy sessions not expecting them to agree, but the nuns said yes," he said.
Seven months on, De Araujo says there has been significant progress.
"I'm really happy, she is physically more healthy, can converse better, and can feed and shower herself," he said, praising the nuns for their skill and dedication.
"My daughter is now in good hands," he said.
Sister Bergita Nganus, who heads Yayasan Bhakti Luhur Timor-Leste, said the center currently takes care of 53 children, 38 of whom have autism or other development disorders, while the rest are orphans or children from broken homes.
Most of the children live at the center, but some live with their families, such as De Araujo's daughter, she said.
The children are often referred to us because regular schools are unable to help them. The schools soon find these children have learning difficulties, especially in reading and writing and are brought here to the ALMA center.
At the center they are taught until they can read and write.
"Luckily, there is one public elementary school that will then accept those reach that stage," she said.
She said the sisters are able to provide the children with much more attention an ordinary school can, so what is taught can be at a pace that best suits their needs.
But the problem is that some of the children are 17 years old. The nuns and the families are working together on how to best to deal with children close to adulthood who still have difficulty learning.
Sister Makrina Lewo, lead therapist at the center, said the older they are the more difficult they are to work with. This is especially the case with autism where the best results are with children aged 3-4 years old.
However, Sister Lewo, who has a decade of experience with children with learning disorders, said many of the children have improved.
"For instance, those who came for first time with much anger can now communicate much better," she said.
The center has nine nuns and a laywoman who teach the children from Monday to Friday each week.
Founded in East Java, Indonesia in 1964 by Dutch Vincentian Father Paul Hendrikus Janssen, the ALMA Sisters have been working among Timor-Leste's poor since October 2004.
At the beginning they rented a small house but as their work grew, they came to the attention of then prime minister, Xanana Gusmao.
In October 2009, the Ministry of Social Solidarity, began providing financial support that allowed the sisters to expand their facilities.
Florencio Pina Dias Gonzaga, director of National Social Development at the Ministry of Social Solidarity, said every year the government gives a grant to institutions that help the poor, victims of domestic violence, and children with disabilities, including ALMA.
"We give money for things like construction of facilities, depending on the need of each institution," he said.
"We also support activities to help the children's spiritual and physical growth, such as music or computer courses," he said.
Cesario da Silva, program manager at the Association for Disability Timor-Leste (ADTL), which oversees 18 non-profit groups working with children with disabilities, said the government help is welcome but more needs to be done.
"Services are scarce in many areas, because of inadequate human resources and a lack of money," he said.