Children with speech problems can struggle to talk to or interact with others. They have great difficulty expressing themselves. If they come from working-class families, they are unlikely to afford speech therapy in the private sector, which typically costs HK$1,000 per session.
The current Operation Santa Claus (OSC), co-organised by South China Morning Post and RTHK, will donate money to pay for 60 children to receive one-on-one speech therapy sessions from Benji’s Centre.
Set up in 2004, Benji’s Centre is the first charity specialising in speech therapy. They now run two centres, in Sha Tin and Nam Cheong. These have served 2,800 children and their families, although some 150 children are still on the waiting list. There are now 11 qualified speech therapists who help children up to 16 years old.
The centre’s founder Wong Ka-ning insisted that timely therapy can make a positive difference to children’s lives. He explained that therapy during the golden period – before the age of six – can have a huge impact on a child’s communication abilities.
The speech therapy centre was also an OSC beneficiary in 2014. With the funds raised that year, some 30 children with speech disorders were able to receive therapy. Raymond Chen, a six-year-old boy with autism, was one of them.
In 2012, when Raymond was two, his parents noticed that he hardly ever talked to or played with other children his age. He struggled to maintain eye contact while speaking to his parents and couldn’t even make simple everyday requests such as asking for food and drinks. He was later diagnosed with autism. He found it especially difficult to explain what he was feeling and interact with others.
“I was frightened and helpless because my son didn’t show any emotion when talking to us,” said Raymond’s mother. “It was hard to see Raymond isolate himself in the classroom while his classmates were playing games like hide and seek. He easily lost his temper because we couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell us.”
Speech therapy would have helped, but Raymond’s family were a typical working-class family from Sham Shui Po. They couldn’t afford the expensive sessions. It looked like they would be leading a life filled with communication difficulties and frustration. But their fate changed when Raymond’s kindergarten teacher introduced them to Benji’s Centre. With OSC’s help, he received free speech therapy there.
After finding the root of Raymond’s speech disorder, the therapists then used a range of methods and treatments to improve his communication skills and relax the muscles in his mouth.
“Raymond was making good progress after one year of treatment. He could at least make eye contact with us when he spoke to us. He was also able to tell me some words that are often used in everyday life, such as cups and plates,” said Raymond’s mother.
But Raymond was still a little shy and struggled to express himself. The therapists encouraged him to take up the role of host in a graduation ceremony at his kindergarten last year. “He hesitated, but the therapists gave him a lot of confidence and trained him, too. When I saw him performing and talking on the stage, I burst into tears. He had become so brave and expressive. You wouldn’t believe that the person on stage was someone who had always hid himself from others,” said Raymond’s mother.
“Who knows what would have happened if we hadn’t received the funding from the OSC and the centre’s treatment. Our family would have really struggled.”
Wong said the government services only serves children with special needs up to age six, but some children can stay with the centre for up to nine years. “We won’t let them go till they can express themselves clearly,” he insisted.
Meanwhile, OSC 2016 got a big boost from activities organised by schools. These events raised HK$350,000 for the charity drive.
The biggest donation came from Discovery Mind Kindergarten, which raised more than HK$120,000 with its 11th annual sponsored hike.