Special needs son inspires early intervention school

by Rachel Phua // May 5, 2018, 11:09 pm


Janice and Max Lee, with their two children, Emmanuel, 8, and Isabelle, 12. The couple run a children's gym in Buona Vista and recently launched an early intervention school called Bridging the Gap. Photo by Rachel Phua.

Janice Lee had the perfect life eight years ago. A decent income as a financial advisor. A high-flying husband, Max, who worked at a multinational corporation (MNC). A daughter, Isabel, who, in Janice’s own words, is bright, independent and sensible. In fact, she was “so perfect” that it changed Janice’s earlier dislike of kids. 

But her second pregnancy caused Janice’s world to come crashing down. 

She gave birth to a premature boy who had multiple conditions. Emmanuel could not express himself properly and often had meltdowns. He was later diagnosed with having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and global developmental delay, among other disorders.

Even the pregnancy came at the wrong time, says Janice, now 39. She was at the peak of her career, and chafed at being stuck in hospital six months into her pregnancy. 

“It’s really sad to see cases at the gym when the child is slow and the father scolds the child, ‘Why can’t you do it?'”

Janice was struck by how cruel God appeared to her. Why was He taking her on a sadistic joyride? 

Struggling to cope with Emmanuel’s challenges, her family stopped going to church three years later in 2012.

Janice and Max were having difficulties finding a pre-school that would accept their son. Even the church disappointed them, she says. They thought that Sunday School would be a place that “protected” Emmanuel, but the leaders were not equipped to take care of children with special needs.

Six months later, Emmanuel suddenly “shut down”. “Despite multiple therapy sessions, for half a year he didn’t want to utter a word or respond to anyone,” Janice recalls.

She gave up. Rattled and exhausted, Janice went back to the altar, and surrendered her bitterness. She sensed God assuring her that He would make a way.

Janice playing at the ball pit with her two children. Despite Emmanuel’s multiple conditions, he is now enrolled in a mainstream primary school. Photo by Rachel Phua.

Building empathy 

In 2014, Max wanted to spend more time with his children. The 44-year-old had always adored kids, so he decided to quit his job to run one of the My Gym’s branches, a children’s gym franchise. From the beginning, the couple chose to enrol children with special needs. 

They saw how the gym was a place where children with special needs played alongside their able-bodied counterparts. The latter learnt to support and relate to their new friends.

Parents who once complained about Janice and Max’s arrangement to integrate the classes, began to sympathise with their kids’ buddies. It was a lesson on empathy that the couple wanted to inculcate even more widely.

They considered opening a pre-school modelled after Kindle Garden, an inclusive kindergarten by AWWA. 

In April this year, the couple launched Bridging the Gap, an early intervention school for special needs children with the aim of integrating them into mainstream kindergartens and primary schools. 

Janice and Max wanted to provide children with a more holistic education that also develops the special needs children’s literacy and numeracy skills, while recognising that gym lessons enhanced their psychomotor and social skills.

Their school is unique as daily gym classes are included as part of the curriculum, with the opportunity to exercise with non-disabled children.

Janice says that these classes are important to the child’s development as physical activities help to train a multitude of skills, from their discipline to movement control.

“Children with special needs don’t know how to control their body. They need to learn how much force they should apply on others and how to balance themselves. We need to develop their spatial orientation and posture as well.” 

Each child is individually evaluated when they first enrol, and reassessed every six months. The school has a one-teacher-to-two-students ratio, and is open to children between two and eight years old.

Bridging the Gap currently has seven teachers and therapists in total, including four who are trained to work with special needs children, and two more who specialise in early education. 

They have plans to expand Bridging the Gap into an inclusive pre-school in five years’ time. They say that it is important to cultivate empathy from a young age, so that non-disabled people know how to relate to and work with special needs individuals, instead of ignoring or even bullying them.

The number of children diagnosed with developmental issues is rising, and so has the number of special needs students in mainstream schools, from 13,000 in 2013 to 20,000 in 2018

God with us 

“Before Emmanuel was born, my ego was huge. Big is too kind. I was a boss at the MNC. I was brought up in an environment where men mustn’t cry. When my grandmother died, I didn’t shed a tear.

“Meeting this boy broke it down severely.”

They are learning to trust God in their journey to help families with special needs children, says Janice, quoting Isaiah 58:10-11. 

Like many fathers, Max was in denial about Emmanuel’s conditions at first. He could not understand why he, normal and healthy, could produced a child so different.

“Men have this pride. They say, ‘I don’t have any history of disorders in my family, so my child should be fine.'”

His heart gradually softened, through taking care of his son and the other children at the gym. But he says some men still cannot come to terms with their children’s condition. 

“It’s really sad to see cases at the gym when the child is slow and the father scolds the child, ‘Why can’t you do it?’ They can’t understand that the child needs help.”

Max teaching Emmanuel how to use the pull-up bar. Max says that watching his son grow up has stripped away his pride and given him a new heart for children like Emmanuel. Photo by Rachel Phua.

Janice and Max say that in fact, Emmanuel’s situation has brought the family closer. They have become more affectionate and patient with one another.

Material comforts have come to mean less to the family, as they cope with financing Emmanuel’s needs and running their own business.

Most of all, they are learning to trust God in their journey to help families with special needs children, says Janice, quoting Isaiah 58:10-11. 

Janice recalls one night, before Emmanuel was born, when she and Max were trying to choose his name. Max wanted to name him Bruce, after his martial arts hero. Janice said he was crazy and wanted to call him Isaiah. So they prayed and slept on it. 

The next morning, the first word out of Max’s lips was “Emmanuel”. Janice smiled. “Yes, that’s the name.”

And it is true, Janice says of her son’s namesake. “God is always with him. He is always with us.” 

About the author

Rachel Phua

Rachel Phua contributes to Salt&Light, where she was formerly a full-time writer. Her stories have also been carried by several US publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Austin American-Statesman, and the Austin Business Journal.