In a small courtyard in downtown Beijing, a group of youngsters aged between 18 and 29 sit at tables creating New Year cards with crayons.
"This is my work," said Wu Bing, 20, displaying her picture of a landscape painting.
She appears to be no different from other young people of her age, but Wu has the mental age of a five-year-old.
This small courtyard is home to a group of mentally ill people like Wu, who very much enjoy their creative hours. The home is just one of three such centres established by the Beijing Huiling Community Service for Mentally Disabled People. They were set up in April 2000.
As a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Beijing, Huiling is co-founded by Meng Weina, from South China's Guangdong Province, and Jan Pierini from Britain.
Different from traditional institutional care, Huiling, a community-based agency, helps mentally disabled people continue their training and education, after graduation from special schools, so that they will be able to lead as normal a life as possible.
"Huiling is composed of families," said Kang Manman, a social worker at Huiling. "I think our members feel like they're coming home everyday rather than attending school here."
According to Kang, all of these "families" are located in urban communities, where some of Huiling's clients live. The others visit during the day. They get along with each other like a real family.
"To let these people learn to live independently, they must know how to live in real communities not just in special schools," said Kang.
According to Kang, one "family" is usually composed of six members together with a "mother" that cares for them.
So far, Huiling has opened three such "families" in Beijing and has admitted about 30 people, most of whom had nowhere to go after graduating from local schools.
One "family" is deep in an old courtyard in Dashizuo Hutong across the northwest corner of the Forbidden City. Cooking, having meals together and going shopping, they do most things that a real family do.
"They love each other and they communicate like brothers and sisters really," Kang said.
"Every member here has a specific curriculum, which is designed to meet their physical and mental needs," said Chen Yajing, a music teacher with the home.
According to Chen, a personal evaluation and a family investigation are carried out on those who wish to enter Huiling. During the interview, staff from Huiling also learn the prospective members' personal interests, favourite foods and self-care ability. With this information, Huiling then makes up a very detailed training plan tailored to the needs of every young member.
After three months, the teachers re-evaluate the student's performance and adjust the training plans accordingly.
Wei Ruisong, 17, who is extremely timid, always tended to isolate herself from others and refused to talk and walk outside before he enrolled in Huiling.
Huiling made a detailed training programme for him, which includes plenty of outings and plenty of chatting.
After weeks of training, Wei began to talk to others and he now travels home by bus on his own.
Special music and art courses are also offered.
"Our curriculum includes outdoor activities and indoor classes, which emphasize and focus on personal interests," Chen said.
The youngsters visit the library, youth centres, sports grounds and shopping malls and they also visit the elderly, where they do a job for them around the house and generally keep them company.
"These activities are very practical and useful," Chen said, "when they go shopping they learn to count money; when they help others, they feel love."
"Usually people think that people with mental disabilities cannot work, however, they have made arts and crafts and have sold them," said Wu Liying, an arts and craft teacher who shows off the beautiful New Year cards, bracelets and necklaces that have been made.
"They can create things just as well as other people after meticulous training," Wu said. "After imitating what the teacher demonstrates over and over, they gradually become good at making things on their own."
Experts in special education echo Wu's idea. "Usually, they are good at thinking in terms of images, but poor at abstract thinking," said Gu Dingqian, director of Special Education Department of Beijing Normal University. "The power of the imagination demonstrated in some of their work is amazing.
"Miracles may take place if their potential is properly developed," Gu said.
Huiling has made great efforts to strive for the rights of disabled people and to educate the public on the concept of "equal opportunity and participation."
There are "parent evenings" each season, when Huiling's staff let the parents know how well their children are doing.
Meanwhile, Huiling sometimes take their members to colleges, governmental departments and other social organizations to give lectures to promote its concept.
Huiling's hard work has won many people's understanding and support. Last year Huiling gained much attention and support from both home and abroad.
Almost everyday, Huiling receives telephone calls from college students, who volunteer to help out. Some of them are overseas students.
Huiling has more than 200 registered volunteers from universities, such as Beijing Forestry University, Beijing Normal University and China Women College and the numbers keep growing.
The volunteers first receive training, during which they learn how to get along with the people with mental disabilities. "It's not enough for them to have just love," Kang said.
Huiling has received much financial aid from New Zealand and Germany. And some international residents in Beijing have offered their help at the centre.
Craeme Steven, a New Zealander who works in Beijing volunteered to teach how to make pizza together with his wife and three children.
"It is a good opportunity to teach my kids to respect them and to try to communicate with people who are different," Craeme said.
More Chinese people have also started to offer support. Kang said that a teahouse owner in Beijing volunteered to offer rooms so that the students could chat.
Huiling is starting co-operations with welfare institutions across other cities. A co-operation programme is going to be jointly launched by Huiling and Tianjin Welfare Institution.
Meanwhile, a number of potential partners in Beijing hope to develop the community care service with Huiling.
"To seek further development, Huiling needs more financial support from society and from the government," Kang said.
Kang said that another problem is the lack of experienced personnel.
Huiling is planning to recruit graduates who have passed examinations in social work and special education. Meanwhile, Huiling is seeking training support from relevant international agencies.
(China Daily January 14, 2002)