Instead of simply helping developmentally disadvantaged people, Children Are Us teaches them how to help themselves — and make tasty baked goods for everyone else

Ingredients for success

Hsiao-jung will be glad when Mid-Autumn Festival finally arrives, more so than most people. Like everyone else, he's been working eight hours a day, five days a week for a long time now and could use a break. Unlike most people, though, he's been busy making tens of thousands of mooncakes for the upcoming holiday. When Mid-Autumn Festival finally passes, Hsiao-jong can forget about mooncakes for a while.

His workload may not be different from most people's, but unlike most people, at 35-years-old Hsiao-jung has the mind of a child. “I'm tired of mooncakes,” he said, “And it's not even Mid-Autumn Festival yet!”

Hsiao-jung is gainfully employed thanks to the help of the Children Are Us Social Welfare Foundation, one of the few charitable organizations in Taiwan that offers assistance to persons with Down's Syndrome, autism or severe developmental disability. Established in 1995, the foundation has since opened a score of bakeries and restaurants in Kaohsiung, Taipei and Hsinchu that employ a number of persons with developmental disabilities, providing them with the skills they need in the workplace and the confidence they need outside it.

Despite its name, there are no children on the payroll at any of the Children Are Us bakeries or restaurants. “The name comes from the fact that these people will be children forever,” said Wu Ting-fang, the foundation's administrative vice-chairperson. “There are several inappropriate names for persons with developmental disabilities and one of the things the foundation strives for is to change the general public's perception of these people.”

They've made some headway. Since the foundation first began, it has not only employed dozens of persons with developmental disabilities at its own establishments, but helped several more find work at other service-industry companies like Pizza Hut and 7-11, where they usually prove to be model employees.

“A-hsien is on time to work every day and doesn't stop working until he goes home,” said Chen Chao-te, who manages a Taipei City 7-11 with one developmentally disadvantaged employee. “I have fewer problems with him than I do with my young employees that are always complaining and wanting time off.” But as happy as Chen is to have A-hsien on staff, A-hsien himself is even happier. “I like working. I like to keep busy,” he said without taking his eyes off the shelves he was stocking. “Sometimes I miss the bus and have to wait another 20 minutes. It's bad to be late.”

His single-minded diligence to his work is what has made Children Are Us one of the most successful social welfare programs in Taiwan. Where traditional foundations might receive most of their funding through government subsidization, Children Are Us derives some 55 percent of its income from its own bakeries and restaurants. That's after paying salaries to the very employees the foundation works to assist. Profits are then used to pay for various welfare programs. Children Are Us receives another quarter of its funding from private donations and another quarter from government assistance.

This principle of self-empowerment rather than dependence is even written into the foundation's mission statement: “We would rather give them a fishing pole and teach them how to fish than give them fish. However, the most important thing is that we lead them to the fishpond; that is the marketplace and community where they can get lots of fish.”

Although the foundation has been successful working with people like A-hsien, bigger problems exists with societal perceptions of the developmentally disadvantaged, a government that doesn't provide enough assistance for them, and even parents of people with special needs who don't know how to best help their children. A Kaohsiung woman made headlines last week for having sex with her two developmentally disadvantaged sons. She first had sex with her elder son four years ago when he turned 16 and began having sexual urges. When her younger son learned of their arrangement, he became jealous and demanded the same. The woman reasoned that, without a sexual outlet, the boys were in danger of hurting themselves or someone else.

It's sad and outrageous that the family didn't initially seek help, but it's even more outrageous that, when they finally did seek professional help, the physician they turned to felt it was his professional prerogative to tell the media rather than contact Kaohsiung City's social welfare department. The case is an extreme example of how families, in their desire to provide for their children themselves, often end up compounding their problems. “There is a stigma that comes with having developmentally disadvantaged children,” said Wu. “Many families aren't willing to come forward to seek help, believing that, as long as they are alive, they can take care of their children themselves.”

It's when the parents are gone, however, that caring for the developmentally disadvantaged can become a public issue. It's also at this time that government assistance proves glaringly insufficient. “The difference between public programs for the disadvantaged in Taiwan and countries like America is vast,” Wu said. “The support provided by our government simply isn't enough.”

As an example, Wu cites a Bureau of Labor Affairs regulation requiring all companies with 50 to 100 employees to have at least one physically or developmentally disadvantaged person on staff or face a monthly fine of nearly NT$16,000. Most companies, she said, choose to pay the fine. That money then goes toward subsidizing foundations like Children Are Us as well as various programs for the disadvantaged, including a monthly stipend, usually around NT$6,000 to NT$7,000, for people with disabilities.

Wu and others believe a better approach would be for the government to take the initiative to help the disadvantaged and reward companies and individuals who do the same rather than penalize them. “There need to be training programs to teach these individuals and show them what they are capable of doing,” Wu said, adding that once they're given the skills to be independent, disadvantaged youth can turn into adults that are contributing members of society.

Hsiao-jung agrees: “I've learned a lot from the foundation. I have a job. I'm not a child.”



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