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Bringing the Light of Opportunity
By Lynn F. Monahan, photos by Sean Sprague

The Mission of Charity: A Taiwanese woman exemplifies her baptismal name, in running a Maryknoll-founded center for those with special needs

Mei-Hua Yang, director of the St. Theresa Opportunity Center. Taiwan/S. Sprague * Click here for video about this story

Mei-Hua Yang, director of the St. Theresa Opportunity Center in Yuching, Taiwan, strides out to meet Maryknoll Father Brendan O'Connell, who founded the day center for disabled children and adults 22 years ago.

Cheerful and welcoming, Yang, who also goes by her baptismal name of Charity, leads the priest and a small delegation of visitors to a reception room and gives a rundown of the programs St. Theresa's offers for disabled people in the southern Taiwanese county of Tainan, starting with early childhood intervention to identify infants and toddlers who may be developmentally delayed to vocational training programs for disabled adults as old as 40.

To see video of the St. Theresa Opportunity Center in action, click HERE or on the photos in this article.

When Yang, 44, is given the opportunity out of the priest's earshot, she sings his praises. "He played a very important role in special education in Taiwan, there's no doubt about that," she says. "He started an early intervention center in Tainan City and that was a foundation of special education here in Taiwan."

Taiwan/S. Sprague MK0510 * Click here for video about this storySt. Theresa's was the first day center for people with special needs regardless of age in Taiwan, Yang says. She credits O'Connell with bringing that inclusive philosophy from the United States. O'Connell, who is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the center but serves as an adviser, defers to Yang to show the building and grounds where people with disabilities are either in classes, workshops or attending to specific tasks around the property.

Yang has stepped into a role previously held by foreign missioners and has taken the reins of the St. Theresa Opportunity Center. Its mission to educate and help people with disabilities to develop to their full potential is now hers.

Taiwan/S. Sprague MK0510 * Click here for video about this storyFor O'Connell, 74, Yang is a perfect example of the type of local professional to whom Maryknoll missioners look to pass the baton as they turn over to the local Church the ministries they established years earlier. O'Connell, whose interest in special education began about 60 years ago with the birth of his sister Helen with Down syndrome, now spends most of his time involved with the Bethlehem Foundation preschool, an inclusive school for both disabled and nondisabled children, about a 45-minute drive from St. Theresa Center. (Click HERE for a story on O'Connell's work at Bethlehem Foundation.)

"Charity is a hardworking person, and very dedicated to her work and especially to the needs of the very severely handicapped children that her center helps," O'Connell says. Yang brings intelligence and creativity to the work, especially in finding new ways to allow people with disabilities to live as independently as possible, he says.

Taiwan/S. Sprague MK0510 * Click here for video about this storyAfter studying literature as an undergrad at Providence University in Taichung, Taiwan, Yang started working at the center in 1991 as secretary to Sister Joan McCarthy of the Sisters of Providence, who was the center's first director. Two years later Yang went to Cardinal Stritch College in Milwaukee to earn a master's degree in special education on scholarships from the college and the center, with the promise she would return.

"So I knew I had a job here when I came back," she says with a smile that lights up her face and radiates from her eyes. "I knew that was something I really wanted to do." She came back, taught at the center, and in 2003, Yang took over, becoming the first lay person to run the diocesan-owned center.

Yang was already running things at the center when she was a secretary. When Sister McCarthy got sick, "Charity found herself in charge of the operation in one way or another," O'Connell says.

Yang, a convert to Catholicism, says the center's philosophy is to work with families to help them appreciate their special needs children regardless of their situation.

Taiwan/S. Sprague MK0510 * Click here for video about this story"We have to build up a good relationship with the family before we start doing anything for them," she says. "We try to support the child to get involved in the routine of the family," she adds, citing as an example something as basic as enabling the child to sit at the dinner table and eat with the family.

Beginning at age 3, children with special needs can attend preschool classes and receive therapy at St. Theresa's. Two-thirds of the students don't pay tuition at the center, which gets about half of its funding from the Taiwanese government. Most of the rest of its financing is from donations, Yang says.

Parents often tell her that they wouldn't know what to do if it weren't for the assistance they get from the center, which has an enrollment of 70 children and 54 adults. Each year, an average of four adults from the center are able to obtain outside jobs and eight children are mainstreamed with their peers at their grade level.

"Way back, when parents had a special needs child, they would think they had done something wrong in a previous life," Yang says, adding that parents still often feel guilty about having such a child and see him or her as a punishment.

Raised with Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, Yang was baptized a Catholic by O'Connell in 1994. "I was very impressed by the work of the Sisters here and many of my friends are Catholic, and that had an impact," she explains, noting also that her undergrad and graduate studies were at Catholic colleges.

Her conversion did not settle well with her family, particularly her father. "I'm the only Catholic in my family," she says. "My second brother is Buddhist and my younger brother is Taoist."
Part of the problem, she says, is that in Buddhist and Taoist traditions paying respect to one's ancestors is an important spiritual obligation that her family feared she would no longer observe as a Christian. "In our culture not to pay respect to ancestors is a big sin," she says. She sees no contradiction in the practice of honoring ancestors and Catholic doctrine, and notes that at her parish the priest will light incense and pay respect to the congregants' ancestors before Mass. Small shrines to the ancestors are common in Catholic churches in Taiwan.

Yang came to an understanding with her father as he was dying. He accepted a rosary from her and asked her to pray for him. "I still remember my father and he is in my prayers, and I know he still loves me," she says.

Taiwan/S. Sprague MK0510 * Click here for video about this storyBecoming a Catholic and her association with the Sisters of Providence led Yang to consider becoming a nun herself. She didn't, but she incorporated a deep spirituality into her life and tries to bring that to her work. With the Sisters no longer working at the center, Yang lives alone in the Sisters' former house with a small dog, which, like the children, was disabled with paralyzed back legs and could move about only with the aid of a wheeled harness before recovering at the center.

"I try to look and seek what God wants me to do here," she says. "I really try to focus and listen to Him. I strongly believe that even though the Sisters aren't here, that spirit is here."

"We can learn the techniques and still if the spirit is not there, if it's just about the techniques and skills, it's not well grounded; it can be very superficial," she says. "We need to learn the love of God every day."

To see video of the St. Theresa Opportunity Center in action, click HERE or on the photos in this article.

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