Kids enrolled at Rosebrook Developmental Centre, founded by Monica de Silva-Lim, also learn to ride and care for ponies. Photo by Sebastian Abbruzzese on Unsplash. All other photos courtesy of Monica De Silva-Lim, unless otherwise stated.

Imagine planning for months for a holiday in Italy, the building excitement as you check in and board the plane, the thrill you feel as you touch down. Then, imagine exiting the plane, and realising that you are not in Italy, but in Holland where you must stay.

This is the analogy Sesame Street writer Emily Perl Kingsley made in her poem ‘Welcome to Holland’, describing her experience of having a child with disabilities.   

This is the analogy that Monica de Silva-Lim, now 54, came to understand when her own daughter, Marie, was born with Down syndrome in 2006.

Monica and husband Mark already had six children. Being open to life (Psalm 127:3), they had anticipated the risk that came with having a seventh. Still, Monica found herself unprepared for Marie. 

Marie at 2-3yrs

Marie at age 2. Marie is now 14.

Marie loves doing what her siblings are doing. “Singapore’s first family of fencing” as dubbed by the local press, are seen here in a 2015 photo. Marie’s older siblings have represented Singapore competitively at national level.

She shared with Salt&Light about the days following Marie’s birth.

Over time, Monica began to discover just how amazing Marie was in her own right. And that she simply learnt differently.

“I cried for three days whenever I was alone. Not because I didn’t love her. I was just worried for her.

“What’s going to happen to her in the future?”

And it was this question that sent Monica on an eight-year journey. It started with her struggle to understand Marie and give her the best, and culminated in her founding Rosebrook Developmental Centre. The centre aims to integrate both typically developing and atypically developing children in its system – helping others see individuals with special needs the way she saw her daughter.

Though Rosebrook currently best serves preschool-age children. Monica hopes that it will become a place to support children all the way up to working age.

A different package

Worry was not the only thing Monica felt after Marie’s birth. She felt inadequate, unprepared, and wistful.

“When a child comes up in a completely different package, it’s that feeling of a loss,” she said. “A loss of your dream, of what you had hoped for.” 

Again, like finding yourself in Holland when you were hoping for Italy.

“God made Marie who she is, so I have to work with her the way He intended.”

Over time, Monica began to discover just how amazing Marie was in her own right. And that she simply learnt differently even though Marie also had a severe and profound hearing impairment, making verbal communication a challenge. A turning point was when Monica met DanaKae Bonahoom, a developmental specialist, through a mutual acquaintance – a mother whose son had Down syndrome.

DanaKae, who lives in Los Angeles, had developed a method, known as Heartworks in Motion. It utilises play by involving the senses (the five basic ones plus others such as balance, spatial awareness and joint pressure) as well as muscles of the whole body. It motivates children through their loves, interests and gifts, so that they can learn and develop intrinsically and holistically.

Monica was drawn to DanaKae’s Christ-centredness, and the positive way in which Marie responded to her.

Monica and family with Marie

Marie at age 3 with her parents, Mark and Monica Lim.

At the time, Marie was just two years old, only able to communicate through gestures and the occasional simple word. When Marie was around 8 years old, DanaKae and her daughter taught Marie to type, and through this, Monica began to understand Marie in a way she had never had before.

Just as one eventually comes to realise the beauty of a new country, Monica recognised Marie’s unique blessings. She saw how her daughter loved people, loved humour and was always eager to learn something new.

“God opened our eyes to just how beautiful she is, and all children with special needs are,” she said. “He taught me that each child is a precious gift from God, fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), and some gifts just come in a different package. If God chose me to be her mother, then He believes in me, and would also provide the grace to teach me how to care for her (Ephesians 4:7).”

While Monica came to understand her child, things were not so simple when the time came for Marie to enter the school system.

Playing to learn

Monica put Marie through several pre-schools and special schools and even enrolled her in primary school. She discovered that none quite fit Marie’s needs.

She said: “Our education system has to cater to the masses, so I understand why it has to be cookie cutter. But because we’re all unique, not everyone will thrive in this system.”

Monica was led through circumstances to start her own centre for pre-school age kids and up, applying the Heartworks in Motion method.

Children would be able to get the body-brain connection they needed in order to fully learn. They would be given the opportunity for lots of sensory exploration with mud, sand, water and more. The system is well suited for neurodivergent (another word for special needs) children.

But Monica didn’t just want a centre that benefited neurodivergent children. Her goal was full inclusion.

A unique centre in a unique setting. Rosebrookers get to learn how to take care of ponies in the stables on the premises.

Marie grooming a horse.

“You either have special schools – that means 100% of the kids have special needs – or you have your mainstream schools,” she said. “Most of the mainstream schools don’t include children with special needs. And the ones that try to don’t know how to fully engage them in community with the typically developing children, including them only for some activities. This separation makes it all the more difficult for mainstream students to understand and befriend those different from themselves.”

Using the Heartworks in Motion method, staff would be able to fully involve both mainstream and children with special needs, using the system everyone could enjoy and gain from.

It was during this period that Monica experienced God’s grace even more intensely.

Born in a stable

While the traditional educational paths in Singapore seemed closed to Marie, Monica knew that God had opened another door for her daughter. “Because many impossible things happened” to allow Rosebrook Developmental Centre to open.

Monica’s main struggle was finding suitable premises for Rosebrook. As the Heartworks in Motion method involves a great deal of movement for the children, Monica needed an open space – space that wasn’t easily available in Singapore.

“Each child is a precious gift from God … and some gifts just come in a different package.”

Over the next few months, Monica and Mark would experience issues related to obtaining a license to rent a space. Or spaces that they found were not enough for their needs.

Their problems persisted until one day when Mark suggested a space on the former grounds of the Singapore Turf Club in Bukit Timah. They knew someone who ran a riding academy there. This person was eager to work with children with special needs.

Monica called their contact, and was informed that the stables were about to close down. 

A plan was formed.

Monica and Mark would take over the running of the premises, while the existing staff would support them by continuing to work with the horses.

Monica believes that to teach a child, one has to work with their nature, not against it. Photo by Leah Tee.

But before she said yes, Monica prayed.

She believed, and still does to this day, the words of St Augustine: “Pray as if it’s all up to God, and work as if it’s all up to you.”

She asked God whether taking this leap of faith was the right move. The answer she received in her prayer said enough.

“He told me: ‘Jesus was born in a stable.’ How much clearer can you get?”

After obtaining a licence, Rosebrook opened.

Working with nature

“If I didn’t obey, and take that leap of faith, we wouldn’t have gotten to do this,” Monica said, reflecting on the miraculous circumstances that led to Rosebrook’s opening in 2014.

“I would probably still be wandering, trying to find a place. Maybe the idea might not even have grown … So I learned to listen to God’s leading, as he continues to lead me every step of the way (Proverbs 16:9).”

“He told me: ‘Jesus was born in a stable.’ How much clearer can you get?”

Central to Rosebrook is the belief that to teach a child, one has to work with their nature, not against it. 

“God made Marie who she is, so I have to work with her the way He intended (Jeremiah 1:5). I have to discover who she really is, so that I can meet her where she’s at, and educate her the way that would be a match for her,” Monica said. “This holds true for every single child. To recognise the value of God’s creations (Ephesians 2:10). Instead of forcing them through systems not made for them, meet them where they are, and build them up from there.”

Marie on horseback. “Riding is a life-giving experience,” says Monica. It helps to build a strong core, balance, self-regulation and self-belief. It also enhances communication and relational skills.

Marie, now 14, and the children at Rosebrook, are flourishing under this system, discovering skills that would otherwise be difficult to learn in a traditional school. They are given the opportunity to run, play, learn – and take care of the horses. All without the need to stay confined in a classroom for most of the day.

“We walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), is the biblical principal Monica tries to live out day to day. From her leap of faith in establishing Rosebrook, to looking past what society told her about having a child with Down syndrome. Having faith that Marie, and others like her, are gifts from God, with talents that can only be discovered and nurtured through a guiding hand.

And as Kingsley’s essay suggests: When you accept that you are not going to Italy, you are “free to enjoy all the very special, the very lovely things about Holland”.

“We will not choose”: Parents who adopted four babies, three with special needs

“Disabled does not mean unable”: 10 persons with special needs ascend Mount Fuji

About the author

Leah Tee

Leah is an undergraduate at NTU Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. She interned with Salt&Light in 2019. She might just become a journalist one day, but for now, she enjoys podcasts, fantasy novels, and petting her dog, Brie.