DILI, East Timor — It was a feeling of utter despair that engulfed José de Araujo and his wife when they learned 15 years ago that one of their two daughters had Down syndrome.
She was 3 then and they wondered why their daughter was not like other children the same age.
As she became older the family still was feeding, bathing and dressing her. They also had difficulty finding a school that would accept her.
De Araujo, who works for a government agency in the East Timor capital of Dili, said he even took her to Bali in Indonesia for therapy in 2013, but, there was no noticeable improvement.
"I gave up and brought her back to Timor-Leste," he told ucanews.com.
However, early in 2018 he stumbled upon Yayasan Bhakti Luhur, a center run by the Association of the Institute for Lay Missionaries, the ALMA Sisters, for people with disabilities and orphans.
"I asked the nuns if my daughter could join the other kids for therapy sessions not expecting them to agree, but the nuns said yes," he said.
Today De Araujo has found that his daughter has made significant progress.
"I'm really happy. She is physically more healthy, can converse better and can feed and shower herself," he said, praising the nuns for their skill and dedication.
"My daughter is now in good hands."
Sr. Bergita Nganus, who heads Yayasan Bhakti Luhur Timor-Leste, said the center cares for 53 children, 38 of whom have autism or other development disorders, while the rest are orphans or children from broken homes.
Most of the children live at the center, but some live with their families, such as De Araujo's daughter.
Children with development disabilities are often referred to the center because regular schools are unable to help them, Nganus said, noting that they are taught until they can read and write.
"Luckily, there is one public elementary school that will then accept those reach that stage," she said.
The sisters are able to provide the children with much more attention than an ordinary school can, so what is taught can be at a pace that best suits their needs, Nganus explained.
But the problem is that some of the children are 17 years old. The nuns and the families are working together on how to best to deal with children nearing adulthood who still have difficulty learning.
Sr. Makrina Lewo, lead therapist at the center, said the older children are the more difficult they are to work with. This is especially the case with autism where the best results are with children 3 to 4 years old.
However, Lewo, who has a decade of experience with children with learning disorders, said many of the children have improved.
"For instance, those who came for first time with much anger can now communicate much better," she said.
The center has nine women religious and a laywoman on staff who teach the children Monday to Friday each week.
Founded in East Java, Indonesia, in 1964 by Dutch Vincentian Fr. Paul Hendrikus Janssen, the ALMA Sisters have been working among East Timor's poor since October 2004.
At the beginning they rented a small house but as their work grew, they came to the attention of then-Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.
In October 2009, the Ministry of Social Solidarity began providing financial support that allowed the sisters to expand their facilities.
Florencio Pina Dias Gonzaga, a ministry official, told ucanews.com that every year the government gives a grant to institutions that help poor people, victims of domestic violence, and children with disabilities, including ALMA.
"We give money for things like construction of facilities, depending on the need of each institution," he said.
"We also support activities to help the children's spiritual and physical growth, such as music or computer courses," he said.
Cesario da Silva, program manager at the Association for Disability Timor-Leste, which oversees 18 non-profit groups working with children with disabilities, welcomed the government help, but said that more assistance is needed.
"Services are scarce in many areas, because of inadequate human resources and a lack of money," he said.