SINGAPORE - Mrs Wendy Wong was set for a senior managerial role in her firm until the birth of her second son, Mr Wong Yong En, now 21, required her full attention.
She has an older son, 23, who does not have any health condition and works at an engineering firm.
At the Dignity Mama bookstore, Mrs Wong gets an allowance of $5 an hour - a far cry from what she could have made. The Dignity Mama pushcart at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital employs individuals with special needs to collect, clean and sell second-hand non-fiction books for children and adults.
One of the three young people at the NUH outlet now is Mr Wong. He was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was six months old and his IQ level is in the low 60 to 70 range, which limits his ability to learn, think and speak.
She said: "I was one of the few human resource executives in a startup firm and I knew if I had continued, I could have climbed up the corporate ladder and would have been a successful manager or someone in a senior position".
She said that the first 10 years of her second son's life were difficult.
"There was no room for my hopes and dreams. All my energy and time was spent on him."
Mrs Wong recounted how she found out her son had epilepsy.
"I knew about it six months after he was born. I was holding him when he suddenly started shaking violently in my hands.
"His hands became rigid, his body stiffened and his eyes rolled up until all I could see were the whites of his eyes. He also foamed at the mouth."
The doctor told her that each time her son suffered a seizure, there would be a few steps back in his mental development.
She explained: "It slows down his learning ability and motor skills."
To teach her son, Mrs Wong had to repeat her instructions several times. But on many occasions, her patience was tested when he made a mess or refused to learn.
Mrs Wong said she blamed herself.
"I kept asking, 'Why me?' Did I do something wrong during my pregnancy? Was I too greedy and ate something I was not supposed to?
"I thought that since my first son had no problems, I would not have to worry about Yong En. But I was wrong and I thought it was me."
Today, Mrs Wong works at the bookstore to keep a close watch on her son. Working at the bookstore alongside her child was the only way she could re-enter the workforce without worrying about him.
A total of six mother-child pairs work in shifts at the two bookstores, which are open from Mondays to Saturdays.
When TNP visited the store last week, Mr Wong was seen going about his duties, greeting customers with a smile and waving goodbye to them when they left.
His mother stayed near her son, stepping in when customers made a difficult request.
But while there are bad experiences dealing with customers, working at the bookstore has taught Mr Wong much.
He has learnt how to open the shop for the day and has made friends with his colleagues. He has even memorised the prices of certain items in the shop.
Mr Wong is paid $800 a month to man the cash register, clean the store and interact with customers. And Mrs Wong is proud of her son.
She said: "I might have given up a lot for Yong En, but when I look at him now and think about how long it took for him to get here, I know it's worth it."
About the Dignity Mama stores
While there are selfish customers who are not afraid of taking advantage of people with special needs, they are few and far between, said Mr Koh Seng Choon, executive director of Project Dignity.
"This happened several times, when the customer underpaid or took an additional book without paying. But generally, people know that mentally challenged children run the stall and they treat them with kindness," said Mr Koh.
The Dignity Mama bookstores sell used books, which are collected, cleaned and sold by mentally challenged youth while accompanied by their mothers.
Each store sells about 40 books daily, most of which are children's books. The stores also sell snacks and souvenirs.
Said Mr Koh, whose organisation trains people with special needs to become hawkers: "I set up the stores to support such people and adopted a business model that allows the best qualified people to look after them - their parents."
He said the two bookstores currently employ six people with special needs, each assisted by his mother.
Mr Koh added that another six parent-child pairs are on Dignity Mama's waiting list.
He said: "Most of them are above 21 and getting gainful employment is challenging. Working at Dignity Mama allows them to earn a living and have a parent to look after them at the same time."
The first store started in September 2012 as a pushcart at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and is manned by two people. Another opened in January at the National University Hospital Medical Centre.
'They are part of our society'
We should learn how to be better employers, better employees and better customers to the mentally challenged, said Member of Parliament for Moulmein-Kallang GRC Denise Phua.
Ms Phua, who has an autistic son and is the president of the Autism Research Centre, said: "There is higher awareness in general of disabilities now, but insufficient awareness on how to treat persons with special needs with dignity and respect.
"They are not just objects of pity. They are part of our society and should be included in a dignified way."
To her, the Dignity Mama bookstores are a good option if the person with special needs cannot find another alternative.
But she cautioned against such individuals becoming overly dependent on their parents.
"Don't forget the parents will not be around one day; so it is best if it is a job model that allows other willing and able adults to also partner the child," said Ms Phua, who is also a board member at the autism-focused Pathlight School.
Three years ago, her husband, Mr Tay Kiong Hong, gave up his job as a senior vice-president of a telecommunications company to start a cafe which hires more than 20 people with special needs, she said.
Ms Phua added that while special needs children have better services nowadays, mentally challenged adults are only just starting to receive attention.
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