Push­ing through ob­sta­cles

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - PEOPLE - By WONG LI ZA [email protected]­tar.com.my

DUE to com­pli­ca­tions at birth, Stephen Chow Chee Kheong was di­ag­nosed with cere­bral palsy and sent to the Cere­bral Palsy (Spas­tic) Chil­dren’s As­so­ci­a­tion of Pe­nang at the age of two.

But thanks to his own fierce de­ter­mi­na­tion and the Boys’ Bri­gade, Chow has de­fied the odds to im­prove both his phys­i­cal and men­tal ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Not only that, he has tire­lessly served the less for­tu­nate via a com­mu­nity cen­tre he founded in 1999.

For this fa­ther of three, this year marks the 20th year of giv­ing back to the com­mu­nity through the Taip­ing Com­mu­nity Ser­vice So­ci­ety, also known as Esda, which means “mercy” in Greek. Chow is the found­ing di­rec­tor and chair­man of Esda.

The non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion pro­vides ser­vices to ne­glected and marginalised groups, ir­re­spec­tive of race or re­li­gion.

But it has not been a smooth ride, both when he was grow­ing up as well as run­ning the cen­tre.

Chow’s mother told him that when he was born in 1971, his heart stopped beat­ing for a few min­utes, so oxy­gen was pre­vented from reach­ing his brain, lead­ing to cere­bral palsy.

He then at­tended the Cere­bral Palsy (Spas­tic) Chil­dren’s As­so­ci­a­tion of Pe­nang un­til the age of 14, when he com­pleted his pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion.

Grow­ing up, he could not speak clearly nor walk steadily.

“Be­sides my phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, I am also a slow learner. My health was very weak and I felt that my life was mean­ing­less. How­ever, my life and abil­i­ties were trans­formed when I joined the Boys’ Bri­gade at the age of 14,” shares Chow, adding that he was a mem­ber for seven years.

Ac­tiv­i­ties like march­ing, camp­ing, ob­sta­cle race and rugby made him stronger and im­proved his phys­i­cal abil­i­ties. His speech and learn­ing skills also got bet­ter.

All that gave him more con­fi­dence in life, which led him to push to be ac­cepted in a main­stream sec­ondary school de­spite some hes­i­tance from his teach­ers and even his mother.

Chow was even­tu­ally placed in the Re­move Class at Seko­lah Me­nen­gah Raja Tun Uda, Bayan Lepas, near his house. He was the old­est stu­dent in the class.

How­ever, he strug­gled to cope with school work and was also ver­bally bul­lied by other boys.

With much hard work, he man­aged to pass his SRP (Si­jil Ren­dah Pe­la­jaran) ex­am­i­na­tion.

“I still re­mem­ber very clearly when I was in Form 3 and try­ing my very best in the SRP ex­am­i­na­tion. Dur­ing the exam, I was the last one to leave the hall be­cause I was very slow. I put all my strength into writ­ing and an­swer­ing the ques­tions very care­fully.

“But when the re­sults came out and were posted on the no­tice board, my name was not there. I rushed to the head­mas­ter’s of­fice very de­pressed, and I think I cried too.

“Later, I was told that my exam pa­pers got lost and the HM told me to re-sit the exam. My mind nearly blew up. How­ever, a few days be­fore Christ­mas, my teacher called to say they had found the pa­pers and that I had passed all of them. I thanked God for the won­der­ful gift for Christ­mas,” he shares.

Chow con­tin­ued to study and sit for his SPM but did not do well. He then worked in a fac­tory for a few months.

“After that, I felt strongly that I should go back to the spas­tic cen­tre to help. I vol­un­teered for a few months and then ap­plied for a job as a phys­io­ther­apy aid. I was the first ex-stu­dent to be em­ployed. It’s so amaz­ing that, al­though my walk­ing was not steady, I could teach oth­ers to walk!”

Over a year later, the spas­tic cen­tre se­lected him to be a part of a one-year so­cial work train­ing pro­gramme in Ja­pan. Chow was 23 at that time. The pro­gramme was fully spon­sored and con­ducted by the Ja­pa­nese Na­tional Coun­cil of So­cial Wel­fare.

“The so­cial work train­ing was a good op­por­tu­nity for me to up­grade my­self to the fullest po­ten­tial in so­ci­ety. So­cial work is pro­fes­sional work. It touches peo­ple and brings hope into their lives,” says Chow, who was the only Malaysian and the only dis­abled per­son in the pro­gramme.

He had to learn Ja­pa­nese and sit for ex­ams, which again proved to be very dif­fi­cult. He al­most got kicked out of the pro­gramme be­cause he failed many times. How­ever, Chow per­se­vered, do­ing his home­work past mid­night. In the end, he made it through the pro­gramme.

After re­turn­ing home, he went to work at the Eden Hand­i­cap Ser­vice Cen­tre in Pe­nang, where he met his fu­ture wife, a Univer­siti Sains Malaysia grad­u­ate.

“This is the 19th year of my mar­riage to my wife, Gin Choo, and we have three beau­ti­ful chil­dren, An­drea, 17, Sean, 15, and Au­drey, 10. Be­ing a fam­ily man and a bread­win­ner is not easy. It’s all by God’s grace. Be­ing a hus­band and a fa­ther, with a dis­abil­ity, fills me with joy but it’s also a strug­gle. There is so much com­mit­ment and heavy re­spon­si­bil­ity in­volved in bring­ing up a godly fam­ily,” he says.

Set­ting up and run­ning the com­mu­nity cen­tre has also been very chal­leng­ing. The cen­tre was al­most closed down three times due to lack of funds. They also had to move seven times.

To­day, the or­gan­i­sa­tion has grown to two cen­tres, with six full-time staff and two part-timers.

The first is a work cen­tre that cur­rently caters to 52 peo­ple with dif­fer­ent dis­abil­i­ties. The sec­ond cen­tre is a learn­ing de­vel­op­ment cen­tre for 50 chil­dren (aged six to 14) from poor back­grounds and bro­ken homes. Esda has also ex­tended its com­mu­nity work out­reach to the orang asli groups in Perak, Pa­hang and Ke­lan­tan.

“The first seven years were very tough for us. Many times, I wanted to close the or­gan­i­sa­tion. Most peo­ple looked down on me be­cause I am dis­abled and have very lit­tle ed­u­ca­tion. But our Cre­ator is so great. His mir­a­cle and grace sus­tains me even though I am noth­ing,” says Chow.

From the eighth year on­wards, things be­gan to im­prove, with more funds en­abling the ex­pan­sion of their cen­tre and out­reach work.

“We hope the gov­ern­ment will give us a big­ger piece of land for our growth and de­vel­op­ment. The bun­ga­low that we bought is too small for 50 peo­ple. At the mo­ment, we are rent­ing a big­ger premises tem­po­rar­ily at a very rea­son­able price but the owner plans to sell it soon,” says Chow, who also hopes to find suc­ces­sors for the or­gan­i­sa­tion as well as em­ploy more staff in the fu­ture.

— Esda

Chow with his wife Gin Choo and their chil­dren. ‘Be­ing a hus­band and a fa­ther, with a dis­abil­ity, fills me with joy but it’s also a strug­gle,’ he says.

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