Monday March 18, 2013
Llifeline of hope for destitute women at Grace Home and Birthright
By LEE MEI LI
The destitute and the desperate can find a sanctuary in Grace Home and Birthright.
ROSE was two months pregnant when she first arrived at Grace Home, a shelter for destitute women in Port Klang, Selangor. A faraway look clouded her eyes. She often looked dazed and confused.
In fact, she was not even remotely aware of the child growing inside her. She would cower in fear whenever anyone so much as bumped into her.
Physical contact was clearly disruptive to the soon-to-be mother and she had good reason to feel so – her unborn child was the result of a gang-rape that left her in the hospital for days.
That was 20 years ago. While she never truly recovered from the horrific event, Rose seems to have found peace in Grace Home, as one of the longest-staying residents at the refuge.
She is still clueless about the son she gave birth to, but to Dr Henry K. Pillai, the founder of Grace Home, the boy will always be remembered as the first baby the shelter helped rescue and put up for adoption.
In 1980, Pillai founded Grace Home after a chance encounter with five elderly destitute women from China. At that time, he was serving as a pastor in Grace Chapel in Klang. The church was later renamed Grace Assembly of God.
“These women were brought into Malaysia when they were children to work as housekeepers for wealthy families. When their employers died, they had no one else to turn to. I managed to rent a house in Klang for RM200 and found a full-time volunteer to look after them,” Pillai, 66, recalls.
When death came a-knocking for the oldest of the group, a 75-year-old, Pillai was left wondering about the plight of the needy, or what he calls “the casualties of today’s philosophies”.
“I remember attending her funeral and thinking: Here’s a lady who left her home as a child to serve so many people, but at her death, she’s being buried by total strangers. That really opened my eyes.”
Since then, Grace Home has taken in over 1,500 destitute women, most of whom are ageing widows or abused wives referred by the Welfare Department. The double-storey bungalow is now home to about 40 residents, with the oldest at 86 years of age.
According to Pillai, the home’s first aim is to reconcile the women with their families.
“Almost all of them come from normal homes but somewhere down the line, they have been abused, robbed and thrown out onto the streets. Some of them are no longer of sound mind – they can be calm one day and violent the next. We have visiting doctors and nurses to give them the medical attention they need.”
Grace Home is clean and airy, with an entrance that leads into a spacious living-cum-dining hall. A section of the lower level is cordoned off as the sleeping quarters for the elderly. More single beds are fitted on the upper level, with whitewashed walls framed by slatted windows overlooking the small neighbourhood of Pandamaran. A wet kitchen shares a portion of the yard, where meals are prepared by a hired cook. The more adventurous residents can choose to do their own cooking.
“In the beginning, the home took in both destitute men and women. A lot of complaints arose and that’s when we realised that no matter how old men are, they’d always be ‘disturbing’ the women. We decided to separate them and moved the men to another home,” Pillai reveals.
In 1990, the pastor established Grace Community Services (GCS), which subsequently grew to become one of the country’s largest charitable organisations. Beginning with Grace Home, the network has expanded to include various outreach activities that speak to the different needs of the underprivileged.
A food bank in Jalan Masjid India, Kuala Lumpur (where the organisation is centred), offers free meals to the poor every Sunday evening, along with medical care and counselling services. Rumah K.I.D.S. is a shelter for orphaned, abused and abandoned children. Pusat Grace provides support for those in need of drug and alcohol rehabilitation. And then there’s Birthright, a shelter for pregnant, unwed mothers.
“You wouldn’t believe how high the student pregnancy rate is right now. I’ve been told that in some areas, there is an average of 20 abortions per week among college students,” Pillai observes.
“At Birthright, we’ve taken in girls as young as 14, right up to those in their 30s. Unwed mothers often think of only two things: killing her baby or killing herself. Their greatest concern is their relationship with their family and usually, they do not get the support they need. They’ll arrive at a point of self-rejection and ultimately, self-destruction. We want to avoid that at all costs. A woman can have her rights but rights must always come with responsibility.”
The location of Birthright is kept under wraps to ensure the privacy of its occupants – up to 10 at any one time. Since its inception 13 years ago, the centre has successfully assisted over 60 unwed mothers. More than half the babies were given up for adoption. Hopeful parents who are shortlisted for an adoption are encouraged to pay for the medical fees incurred by the mother of the child.
Birthright pays homage to how precious life is, says Malar Chan, who heads the shelter’s volunteer committee.
“It’s more than just about stopping abortions. It’s about saving the baby and the mother’s lives. We try to do all that we can to reconcile the women with their families and with society,” says the human resource manager, who is in her late 40s.
Chan recalls a case not too long ago in which a father was deeply affected by the news of his daughter’s unplanned pregnancy.
“He took it so badly at first – he was often in tears during our counselling sessions. He had high hopes for his daughter, who was still in college. But in the end, we made him realise that he needed to be there for her, and not add more stress to the situation.
“After the baby was born, it came as a big relief for the father to see his daughter back in shape. To him, the bad dream was over and the family could finally move on with their lives.”
Chan has a team of six female volunteers who drop in from time to time to assist with counselling the mothers-to-be.
“We try to be there for them as much as we can – just talking and listening to their worries and concerns. And, after what the girls have been through, it’s really amazing to see them change for the better. That’s what keeps us volunteers going.”
Chan reveals that her experience of losing her firstborn at birth made her feel more strongly for what Birthright stands for.
“I know the hurt and pain of losing a child. If given a choice, nobody would want to give up their own baby; it is the environment that forces them into the situation. I just want to do everything I can to help make things better for the women.”
To Pillai, the unfortunate circumstances that befall women can be prevented, if only society had better role models.
“Sad to say, there are very few role models for people to look up to now. In those days, it used to be parents and teachers who would influence a child. Today, it’s all about rock stars, movie stars and politicians,” he opines, adding that in some cultures, women are worshipped as nothing more than a sex symbol.
“Beauty is only skin deep. A woman is more than what she looks like on the outside; she’s also a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister – someone to be valued and treasured and not to be used and discarded.”
■ For more information on how you can lend a helping hand, visit gracecommunityservices.my or call (03) 7806 3007.