Family

A special youth finds belonging at last

Christine Leow // July 28, 2020, 4:44 pm

Serene - feature NEWER

Samuel Ang, who has special needs, graduating from MINDS – Woodlands Gardens School at 18. He is now being trained for a vocation. All photos courtesy of Serene Lee.

Samuel Ang loves his Sunday classes. When his teacher speaks, he listens with rapt attention, totally engaged. Come craft time, he can be found bent over his work, diligently drawing.

This may seem like an ordinary scene, but to his mum, Serene Lee, 51, it is a precious sight indeed. For years, mother and son had visited several churches in a bid to find a place for Samuel.

“The doctor just said he was ‘born slow’.”

“He couldn’t fit in. He would walk up and down, and do his own thing. In the end, he didn’t learn much,” she told Salt&Light in Mandarin.

Samuel, now 20, was not being difficult nor was he being petulant. He is simply different from his peers.

Lee does not know the exact diagnosis, though.

“The doctor just said he was ‘born slow’ when we brought him in for a diagnosis when he was young,” said Lee.

Ordinary beginnings

At first, the family did not suspect anything was amiss with their youngest child.  

“Maybe I was too busy with work,” lamented Lee.

“The teacher told me my child wasn’t suitable for kindergarten.”

Back then, her husband Ang Lai Seng, 52, worked as an odd-job man. Lee supplemented her hair stylist income with night shifts as a beer promoter so they could provide for their three children – an older son and daughter, and Samuel.

By the time Samuel was about three, he was still drooling and had not spoken his first words. His parents were perplexed.

Said Lee: “We thought he might be mute. But when he cried and shouted, he was able to make sounds. So, we thought he might grow out of it.”

They enrolled him in a kindergarten but within a few months, they were asked to remove him.

“The teacher told me my child wasn’t suitable for kindergarten. He would walk up and down during class and ignore her,” recalled Lee.

For a long time, his father refused to believe that Samuel had special needs because he looked like any other child his age.

For a long time, Samuel’s father refused to believe that he had special needs because he looked like any other child his age.

They recommended a school for children with special needs instead.

Lee’s husband, Ang, was furious. On a visit to check out Samuel’s new school he insisted his son was “not like these kids”.

Six months into the special school, Samuel said his first word: Pa.

Said Lee: “He said, ‘What if he becomes like them after attending the school?’ I told him, ‘We don’t have a choice. The regular schools can’t take him.’

“In the end, he stomped off saying, ‘I don’t care, you do what you want!’”

Six months into the special school, Samuel said his first word: “Pa.”

“When my husband heard him, he said, ‘The school is worth it.’”

Soon, more words followed – “bye” and “rice”. At 20, Samuel speaks English and Mandarin.

“Nowadays we tell him, ‘Di Di (Little Brother), can you be quiet and not talk so much?” said Lee with a laugh.

The search for solace

Getting Samuel to talk was only one of many challenges the family faced.

When Samuel was two, he developed a squint in his left eye that required surgery. When he was four, his lower limbs became swollen on one side – he had developed an infection. Another surgery was required. Every time he fell ill with a fever, he would suffer from seizures.

“Whichever temple people told me was more ling (spiritual), I would go.”  

“It got better as he grew older. But even now, when he has a fever, we are extra careful,” said Lee.

Then, there were the tantrums.

“When it was too noisy, or people spoke or laughed too loudly, he would throw a temper tantrum.”

Desperate, Lee sought spiritual solace.

“I would go to temples to bai bai (pray). Whichever temple people told me was more ling (spiritual), I would go.”  

Nothing changed.

A longing within

Deep down, though, Lee had always been drawn to Christianity. She just could not explain why.

“I always wanted my kids to go to church. I even gave my children Christian names,” she said, even though she was raised in a family who believed in another religion.

The opportunity to attend church just never arose till a friend came to visit and saw her struggling to manage Samuel.

“Her husband saw me beating and scolding Samuel. He taught me to calm down and hug him instead,” said Lee.

Samuel with a child from COOS at an outing organised by the church. Lee had always wanted her children to attend a church.

Samuel (left) with a child from COOS at an outing organised by the church. Lee had always wanted her children to attend a church.

The advice worked. The couple also invited the family to church. Lee took the children, but Ang refused to go.

“Once, when my sister-in-law came to take him to her church, he hid from her.”

“In those days, though, there was no programme for special needs children. Samuel couldn’t fit in with the other children.”

While it did not pan out, the invitation gave Lee the courage to visit other churches on her own. As the years went by, there were invitations to other churches, too. But nothing worked out for long.

“After a few times, Samuel would refuse to go. Once, when my sister-in-law came to take him to her church, he hid from her,” said Lee.

“He just couldn’t fit in with either the adult worship service or the children’s programme.”

Her two older children also stopped attending church.

A special Sunday School

Then, a friend told her about the Church of Our Saviour (COOS) and their special needs programme, SUNSHINEkidz. Encouraged, Lee took Samuel. 

“I feel so relieved that I can go for the worship service on my own. When I am there, my heart is at peace.” 

“There were lots of kids with special needs. They sang, they drew, they prayed. He loved it.” 

In the past, Lee had to stand guard by the window to watch her son each time he went for classes, afraid that he would be left out or would act out. At COOS, there was no need for that.  

“He is so well cared for that he has become very obedient. The teachers are all very patient with him and he listens to them. 

“I feel so relieved that I can go for the worship service on my own. When I am there, my heart is at peace.” 

Of the special needs ministry for children and youths, Pastor Debbie Tan, 43, who heads the children’s church, said: “The salvation of God is for everyone.

“We believe everyone can encounter God, including infants and individuals with special needs, and everyone deserves to know and receive God’s love.”

Samuel (far right) with friends and staff from COOSkidz which also runs SUNSHINEkidz, their programme for children and youths with special needs.

At COOS, Lee found the solace in God that she could not find anywhere else. She turned her life to Christ.

“It was just a peace that came over me that has changed my life,” she said. “I can’t really explain it. I found a forgiveness in God that made me want to forgive others. It was something new to me.

“Other new things I learnt was that God created the world. I never thought about it before but I was in awe. My God is so amazing.”

Mother and son have been attending COOS for over a year. 

“Now, he tells me, ‘Bye bye mummy.’ Then, he goes off on his own,” said Lee. 

Lee was equally moved by the warmth the people in church showed her from the start. 

Lee also saw God’s love demonstrated at church and the warmth moved her. 

“I was introduced to a befriender. She followed me everywhere, making sure I was comfortable. She took me to the welcome corner and everyone was so nice to me. 

“When the befriender can’t be there, she gets someone else. I told her, ‘No need. I can manage on my own.’ But she always insists. She is so nice that I sometimes feel embarrassed. 

“Now, she sits with me during the service. When the pastor says something in English I don’t understand, I ask her and she would explain.” 

Lives changed

Since becoming a Christian, Lee has seen herself change. 

“Ever since I attended the church, I’m calmer. I also noticed a difference in my husband. He used to oppose my going to church. Now, he doesn’t.

“I’ve been praying to God, ‘Please let him believe.’ He’s even gone with me once to see Samuel in class.”

She is hoping she can start classes to prepare herself for baptism in church once they can meet physically again.

The hope for Lee now is that the rest of her family will join her at COOS.

Lee has also seen Samuel change. He used to be given to bouts of anger.

“He would shout and pick fights with his older brother. Even though his brother tries to keep the peace by ignoring him, he would continue to provoke him.

“He can’t be reasoned with when he gets like this. So we would beat him.”

Now, with the counsel of teachers from COOS – “talk to him calmly and if he gets worked up, pray” – and the examples of other mums with children with special needs who “speak nicely to their kids”, Lee has learnt to manage Samuel more calmly.

Her son has, in turn, become “more obedient”. The temper tantrums have also subsided.

The hope for Lee now is that the rest of her family will become Christians and join her at COOS.

“I won’t force them. I will wait.”

When a plea for God to “take over” becomes a journey of blessing for parents of kids with special needs

“The gift is still from God”: Letters of Grace family on choosing to keep their special needs child

A divine exchange: When God showed one mother how He saw her special son

About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told. This led to a career in MediaCorp News scripting and producing news, current affairs programmes and documentaries. Christine is now a Senior Writer at Salt&Light. Her idea of a perfect day has to do with a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.