BEIJING, China — As soon as the first sisters moved onto the church grounds in a rural region outside of Beijing, the babies started showing up on the doorstep. They were babies with severe disabilities, abandoned at a few months old, with no trace of the family who left them behind.
China’s one-child policy was not enforced in the rural countryside, like here in Hebei province, where families continued to have an average of three or four children.
“These are very poor families, and these parents have a lot of pressure, not only for taking care of the disabled kids, but also taking care of many other children,” said Sister Niu Chun Mi, director of the Gaoyi Therapy Center for the Liming Family. The Liming Family is the primary ministry for the St. Therese of the Child Jesus Sisters, known locally as the St. Therese of the Little Flower Sisters. The Liming (House of Dawn) Family is a group of three institutions that serve children and adults with severe mental and physical disabilities.
“Parents began abandoning these children in front of the door to the church, and the bishop asked the sisters to take care of them,” recalled Sister Xeufen Zhang. Sister Xeufen was one of the original 10 founders of the St. Therese sisters in 1988.
“In the beginning, we kept the orphans in the same house as us, and we slept together, and we ate together,” said Xeufen. “Before I entered the community, I thought that sisters live in a house with a big wall and pray all day. When I entered, I saw that a sister’s life was very different. We needed to build the house ourselves, brick by brick. We needed to take care of these orphans and students. I didn’t choose to be a mother, but suddenly I needed to be a mother and a father, too.”
It wasn’t until 1998 that the sisters formally opened the orphanage in a separate building, with guidance from sisters from Hong Kong. Today, the Liming Family has three branches. Biancun Nursing Center provides accommodations for the youngest children who do not have families. The Gaoyi Therapy Center offers special education, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and “integrative sensory” therapy, an occupational therapy for children with both physical and mental disabilities.
At the Ningjin Occupational Center for young adults, staff train the residents to make crafts that are sold locally and yield a small income.
“It started with the orphanage, but there were more and more orphans, and our former superior said we needed to reduce the number of orphans,” said Sister Ma Suling, superior general of the St. Therese Sisters.
“Many parents don’t want to abandon their kids, but reality forced them to,” she said.
The sisters started the therapy center in 2006, with the purpose of providing resources and support to parents, so they could keep their children at home.
“Some hospitals accept these kinds of children for therapy, but it’s very expensive,” said Ma. “They need a lot of long-term therapy, even for years. If a child has cerebral palsy, they might need three to five years to learn how to walk with a device.”
At the Liming centers, the therapy is heavily subsidized. Forty-minute sessions cost 25 yuan (about $3.50), less than half of the cost of hospital therapies. Families are charged on a pay-as-you-can basis, but Sister Ma said only about a third of the families are able to afford treatment. The rest is covered by donations from private individuals, including Catholics throughout China.
“We also do training work for the parents, and the parents often accompany the kids during therapy,” explained Sister Zhang Cun Cun, vice director of the therapy center in Gaoyi. “That’s good for the long-term therapy for the kids.
“Teachers teach the kids to take care of themselves,” Zhang added. “This reduces their expense to the families. They give them the therapies, and also personal hygiene. They teach them how to wash their own bowls and tie their own shoes.”
It’s a radically different approach from how institutions and the public used to treat people with disabilities, expecting that they could not do anything for themselves, the sisters said.
There are 130 children and young adults living at the Liming Family centers, which have helped more than 1,800 people since they started.
In addition to providing services for people with disabilities, the St. Therese sisters are trying to influence how society treats people with disabilities. They have a speakers bureau that brings young adults from their center to tell community center and university audiences about their lives.
“Their stories inspire a lot of people,” said Sister Mi Lihong.
The Liming centers also organize talent shows, showcasing residents who can play the piano, sing, write poetry on a computer using their toes to type, or paint using their mouths. One resident, Tian Herbal, is now studying on a full scholarship at Beijing Normal University. She does not have use of her limbs and paints watercolors of giant flowers using a brush clamped between her teeth.
“Through these activities, we want the society to know our value of life, that we respect life like this,” said Mi.
Tian, which means “gift from God,” is the last name that the sisters give all of the orphans. Tian Hua Hua, 23, is part of the speakers bureau and a professional photographer. His work, featuring shots of intimate, spontaneous moments of people with disabilities going about their daily lives at the Liming Center, was shown in a gallery in Beijing and in international media.
The sisters actively promote a connection between the community and the Liming Family centers. They recruit local families to be “supportive parents.” For 300 yuan (about $40 per month), a family “adopts” one of the residents at the Liming Center.
“Sometimes they come to visit, sometimes they take our patients to their house,” said Mi. “We want to make a family that is there to support them for an emotional perspective.”
They also match “supportive parents” with families of children with disabilities, to help give them extra support and enable the children to live at home.
Originally, the Liming centers were run only by sisters, but eventually the nuns realized that hiring experienced laypeople for administrative positions helped the organization run more efficiently. Sister Mi said that, at the beginning, there were some clashes in leadership style between the sisters and the laypeople, some of whom are not Catholic.
“We’re still on our way to seeking the best management,” she said.
Melanie Lidman is Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report. She is based in Israel. This is an edited version of a story originally published in Global Sisters Report, a project of National Catholic Reporter. The website is http://globalsistersreport.org.