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November 18, 2009

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Sisters' dream school offers hope of normality to cerebral palsy kids

WANG Can's wish list is very different to most little boys. Instead of playing with trucks and action men, he wants to stand still for five minutes without his head rolling forward, say simple worlds like mummy and daddy and hold a spoon by himself.

Four-year-old Wang suffers from cerebral palsy, a condition caused by brain damage, normally during pregnancy but sometimes as late as three years old. It affects the coordination of muscles and leads to speech defects and sometimes learning disabilities.

But Wang can achieve his goals, and much more - he just needs to look at his classmates, four of whom graduated from the CereCare Wellness Center for Children at the weekend.

The woman behind this unique 24/7 rehabilitation and education center is Shanghai's very own Mother Teresa °?- Lu Shunling.

A CP sufferer herself, Lu was diagnosed at the age of 18, and moved to Hong Kong for treatment in the 1950s. She recognized the healing benefits from traditional Chinese medicine masters and acupressure, and developed her own special technique which is used at the center.

At the age of 30, Lu walked out her front door, and it was from this moment that she started helping others with CP, says her younger sister Iris Lieu, who is also the director of CereCare.

Using her inheritance, Lu remodelled her garage and opened a free clinic in 1992. Then in 2003, she sold a home left to her by her family and with her sister opened up CereCare in Shanghai's Xuhui District.

Lieu says CereCare is the only place in the world which combines her sister's acupressure and conductive education.

Conductive education, which is done in a group, combines physical exercise with learning. Children learn about directions and colors as they are asked to stretch out their right hand to pick a purple flower, for example. Lieu says this method keeps class interesting for the children and takes their mind off any pain.

Starting with just five children, the center now looks after 30 from all over China, with 48 staff - a mixture of acupressurists, teachers and volunteers.

On Sunday the center turned six years old and waved off four of its graduates, celebrating the day with a party and fund-raising bazaar.

To graduate means a child can now go to the toilet by themselves or they have turned seven years old - the school's cut-off point.

Graduation day is meant to be a special day, but it puts the children and their families at a crossroad, something which Lieu says she and the center committee are concerned about.

She says CP children have difficulty getting accepted into China's regular schools, which are not readily adapted to disabled pupils. The alternatives are to stay at home or go to special schools, where the standard of education is far lower.

"The schools are not barrier-free, there are no handicapped facilities."

She says most CP children are of normal intelligence, and some are in fact very smart and should have the same right to an education as other children.

"There was one boy who was so smart, but he has to go to a special school. There he's number one in the class, very clever. Every time I think about him I feel very, very frustrated," says Lieu.

Lieu's dream is to raise enough money to expand the CereCare center and build a barrier-free school, for children from one to 18 years old.

And her dream school would include all children.

"Physically challenged children can attend with normal children who are as smart as they are."

Sunday's fund-raiser is a path toward realizing the sisters' dream, but the fact is CP care is so expensive - 36,000 yuan (US$5,273) per child a year - that the final amount raised will probably cover three children's treatment for a year.

For little Wang and his classmates, there is plenty of inspiration within the walls of CereCare itself.

Sui Yi, a CP sufferer who received treatment from Lu, can now walk unassisted, and now works at the center, giving massage to the children.

"Once the parents of children with CP see me and Lu, they see that their kids too can contribute to society and can live independently," says Sui.


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