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To Deliver Light from Dark-A Mother's Special Education in China

Her daughter, born disadvantaged by Down Syndrome and other physical shortcomings, was in childhood facing formidable obstacles in learning. Now beset by heart-wrenching circumstances, the mother set about overcoming these hard facts of life on behalf of her daughter. She gave up her cherished career in business and established her own institution of special education, the Sunshine Learning Center. From a humble beginning, the school would become a life-changing facility for other parents in similar circumstances. Today Dolores showers maternal affection upon not only her child, but also upon all her disadvantaged students. And so this foreigner in China gives something back to her adopted country; a compassionate motherly dedication to the children who need it most.


A precious Christmas Day gift, in 1997, without uttering a single sound, Laura Sun came into this world as our daughter-my child and the child of my husband, Sun Hao. The long seconds that passed seemed an eternity. Then she finally responded to the doctor, raising her new voice. At that moment, in that Beijing maternity ward, I sensed that something was not right.


I called a doctor friend in my country, the Netherlands, and together, using reference materials, we came to the conclusion that Laura had Down Syndrome. Raising this possibility with the doctors in Beijing, I learned that they suspected as much. Results of tests conducted a week or so later came back positive. The tests also revealed that Laura had a heart condition-a hole in one of the chambers. Later she was flown to Hong Kong, where a more thorough and accurate diagnosis of her condition was made. And she was diagnosed with a second hole in the other chamber, as well as a host of other health issues. Successful heart surgery gave Laura a new lease on life, and enabled her to begin the next difficult phase of her life's journey.



Students and teachers visit a fire station.


Laura's first six years became a blur of hospital visits, including six surgeries on her eyes, ears and heart. In addition, a team of professionals from Holland worked long distance with me, giving advice on what to do to support and facilitate Laura's physical and overall development. In Beijing, the dearth of necessary and relevant services and facilities meant that I had to look beyond the shores of China. Fortunately, I was able to find a physiotherapist and a speech pathologist to work with my daughter-thus helping to ensure much-needed support throughout her early development. However, formal schooling was another matter.


Initially, Laura was enrolled at the age of two in a small international Montessori School. However, with each new learning transition in school, things went badly for Laura, due to the difficulties she had with coping with change, with communicating her needs, and in performing the necessary skills and demonstrating the knowledge that would enable her to relate to her peers. Behavioral issues arose as Laura's frustrations with her world and its demands on her increased. Similarly, I experienced growing frustration as a mother and a mounting sense of helplessness as the situation continued to worsen. It soon became apparent that Laura needed special education to support her learning processes. However, mainstream schools were not equipped to handle such educational and development needs. Other ordinary international schools in the city were also unable to provide the support and expertise being sought.


One day, sitting in the office of one of the international schools, along with a special needs teacher and a counselor, a seemingly absurd proposition was put on the table: "Why not start your own school?" Since that day, the idea of the Sunshine Learning Center-borne out of one mother's quiet desperation-took flight.


From very humble beginnings in the basement of a housing villa in the northern suburbs of Beijing, the Sunshine Learning Center began to show positive results after only its first term of operation. With one-on-one instruction, specialized and holistic teaching methods, and the resourcefulness and dedication of a well-trained team, the students at the Sunshine Learning Center made remarkable progress. Parents were ecstatic at the results and the newfound happiness of their very special children. Before the end of the first term, Sunshine received more requests from other parents who had children with special needs, and it became evident that the basement premises could no longer accommodate the rising demand. We had to find a new home for the school.



Milla crafts pottery with the help of a teacher.


After much searching, new premises were found in another villa and renovation work began. The September 2004 school year began in a new home that could accommodate up to 15 students, 10 faculty members and five support staff. The school took on a new life with new hope.


The success of the Sunshine Learning Center, and the growing demand for special education for those of all ages, formed in my mind the genesis of a much larger concept of the Sunshine Group.


As envisioned, the Sunshine Learning Group would be a special education-focused, non-profit umbrella organization for the provision and support of special education, training, and related life services for those with disabilities. It would link four different learning and life centers together into a holistic environment: the Sunshine School (or what is now The Sunshine Learning Center) where students aged 4-18 could attend school and have their special academic, social, vocational and physical development needs met (e.g. speech therapy, etc.); a second center providing formal and focused training to teachers and therapists, as well as support to parents and those who are interested in understanding and facilitating the needs of people with disabilities; an establishment of a vocational training center for those with learning and other disabilities who have completed their schooling, and are ready to move on into society; and finally, a continuation of the mission of the other three centers by providing long-term residential care and support to those with disabilities and special needs.


In sum, the mission and dream of The Sunshine Group is to provide a range of support services that enables people with special needs to realize their fullest potential in different stages of their lives, and in different aspects of their development, thus raising their quality of life, and enabling them to walk their own path with dignity, confidence and success. The current Sunshine Learning Center became the first step to realizing a once-despairing mother's larger dream.


Our Sunshine Learning Center will move to a new location in June of 2006. It is an existing factory warehouse, which will be completely remodeled to meet the school's requirements. All the kids and teachers are looking forward to our new home, with the sunshine in our hearts.


(China Pictorial May 23, 2006)

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