ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Joyous Bedlam

In the Maison du Sacre Coeur in Haifa, a rehabilitation program brings joy to mentally challenged children.

The old storeroom is now their favorite place.

For years, the children of the Maison du Sacre Coeur never knew it was there. Suffering from severe mental and physical disabilities, they lay in their cribs while the staff cared for them.

Now the children can’t keep still and want to be playing.

What’s gotten into these boys and girls – these children who will never get well?

The Daughters of Charity who have cared for the severely handicapped children of Maison du Sacre Coeur in Haifa have seen scores of children lovingly tended for years. Yet, they felt they were not doing enough to help them more fully live as persons. It is not enough just to love these children. They must be allowed to live, even in their feeble ways.

To improve the children’s lives, the Sisters of the Maison have developed a rehabilitation program. Their efforts have shaken the children from their idleness and charged them with life.

On the first floor of the Maison, the storeroom where old cribs and dust used to pile up is now a rehabilitation room. Clean and bright, it houses assorted physical therapy equipment. These inexpensive substitutes for unaffordable hospital equipment may look simplistic, but they effectively help the tykes awaken to the simple joy of movement.

The staff at the Maison has approached the therapy program creatively. Where the children had previously been cared for while they passed their short lives in cribs and strollers, they now move about and exercise their muscles. As they become more self-sufficient in caring for themselves, their lives take on added dignity.

While the therapy equipment does not look sophisticated, it works. For instance, a large bin – four feet high by six feet by twelve feet – containing colorful styrofoam about the size of softballs acts like a Hubbard tank, a water tank used in most hospitals for therapy. Children are placed in it to experiment with body motion. At first they are terrified of the unfamiliar surroundings and the strange sensations. But as they squirm about, they feel their bodies gently bend with the support of the balls – as if they were in water. They begin to relax and cannot help but delight in floating.

A physical therapist hired to direct the new program has also devised other equipment. On roller boards, the children can scoot about while they work their arms or legs. Old milk cartons weighted with small stones serve as large rattles while also exercising the children’s hands and arms. They also learn to use their legs while supported in walkers. When they must wait their turns or rest after using this equipment, they stand in padded support harnesses which let them watch the other children. All the devices allow the children to use their muscles and develop their coordination.

Once they have developed their muscular coordination enough to move about, there is no keeping them down. They delight in the adventure of working on the equipment, which they consider play. It is a new world for them to move about on their own and to feel control of what they are doing. For instance, Manal is a three-year-old hydrocephalic girl who was not expected to survive infancy. Today she feeds herself and darts about in a walker.

The rehabilitation program is only one of the new aspects of the Maison. Its staff continually identifies new concerns and responds with imaginative solutions.

Therapy for the children includes stimulating them with music and storytelling. Although the Sisters have beautiful, rich voices, they have practical limitations. Since not enough staff or volunteers are available to give each child all the attention she or he deserves, they will play tapes of Arab music or stories.

Other dimensions of the children’s handicaps also get special attention. Parents of these children have become a special concern of the Haifa ministry. They especially have to come to terms with their children’s disabilities. Many handicapped children first came to the Maison because the parents did not know how they could care for the child. Still, they never totally separated themselves from their child, even though they are consumed by shame. In this quiet desperation they turned to the care of the Sisters at the Maison. More than 60 children now receive care here.

The parents are being drawn into the healing process. During their visits, they meet people who enjoy their children as they are. They see models for childcare. The brokenness they feel – their sense of disgrace at having a deformed or retarded child – is healed as they learn to care for the child, to see him or her as someone accepted and loved by these nuns from France, the Philippines, Lebanon, and the United States. Some mothers of these children even serve as volunteers in the Maison.

With the extent of the care provided there, the Maison seems more a home than an institution. This reputation of care given with love and professionalism has brought other parents there to find the best treatment for their severely handicapped children.

The strong spiritual life of the religious community at the Maison has opened it to an imaginative approach to its ministry to special people. The joyful daily life helps the staff cope with other problems, such as the increasingly difficult task of obtaining necessary medications. They carry on as best they can – like any family must.

The Sisters working at the Maison du Sacre Coeur seem to enjoy the new programs as much as the children do. It gives them a chance to play with them while they watch them develop strength and mobility. The children’s resilience has made the Maison much more hope-filled.

The staff at the Maison is going beyond mere maintenance care to offer the children a chance at enjoying life. They are offering more than smothering love by showing the children love which respects them as persons. Through their efforts and the additional contributions of supporters, such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, they have awakened the children to actively explore their clean little world. Nowadays, the staff may even wonder – but only briefly – what wild joy they have unleashed. In their hearts they are as happy as the children.

Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East.

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