KAJANG: When Kong Lan Lee decided to quit her job as an administrative manager to become director of the Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation in Petaling Jaya, her mother, boss and colleagues asked her if she was sure.
There was no money in the career change and she was doing well at her job, her mother pointed out. But Kong was bored of the wild goose chase in the corporate world.
That was in 1990 and she hasn’t looked back since.
“The minute I went in, I knew there was no turning back,” said Kong, one of the winners of this year’s Star Golden Hearts award.
“The little ones were so cute, I just fell in love with them.”
Five years later, she moved to the Association for Special Children Kajang (PKIK) as its director.
The centre provides meals for over 40 children daily, and conducts training programmes for children, youths and adults with learning disabilities from various ethnic groups and backgrounds.
Since she joined the association, Kong has rolled out an early intervention programme for children below seven, a day training programme for persons above 14 years, an employment training programme for adults, therapies and, most recently, an independent training group home for young adults.
“I salute Kong. She did a great job with this place,” said her colleague and longtime friend, Chew Swan Im, adding that this director has always been different from the others.
“Whether a child is rich or poor, she treats everyone the same way and never differentiates according to skin colour,” added the teacher who has worked with Kong for over 20 years.
Chew recalled a time when she had trouble agreeing with some of the parents of the children with learning disabilities.
“Kong just smiled and reminded me to be patient and understanding with them because they have to care for the kids 364 days a year,” she said.
“When we make mistakes, as a boss she doesn’t scold us. Instead, she listens to our side of the story first.”
Now, 26 years after leaving her corporate job, the golden-hearted director said she was thankful for how it changed her life.
“They’re very beautiful people and they have so much to teach us on what it is to be a human being,” she said.
“It’s very gratifying watching them grow up and progress.”
Although some of the centre’s students are over 40 years old, with the eldest being 54, Kong still endearingly refers to them as her “kids”.
She has clearly helped to make a difference.
A large number of the centre’s children are those left out of the loop by the public school system due to bullying or systematic mistreatment by others.
But Kong has guided them towards living a more meaningful life by helping them build relationships, gear up for jobs, and prepare for independent living.
Some of the “kids” are certified world-class special athletes, bagging gold medals at the Special Olympics in Los Angeles and Athens.
“We teach them how to make their own decisions instead of having them made by others for the rest of their lives,” noted the Kajang native.
For more than two decades, Kong has also been tirelessly raising funds to keep the centre afloat. But she has never been one to rest on her laurels. This year, she is bracing for one final stretch before slowly moving on to retirement.
“My final dream is for all of them to be able to move into their very own campus,” she says.
“People go to universities and schools with their own campus, so why not these children too?”
That’s her plan but, she admits, “whether I’ll be here long enough or not, I don’t know.”
The centre is now raising funds to construct a building on a piece of land in Kajang that was purchased in 2008. But only half of the amount required has been raised so far.
Asked if there is anything she has not achieved, Kong said some of the parents are past 80 but have not managed to get an assurance that their child will be in good hands when they are no longer able to care for them.
“That’s one thing I feel I didn’t work hard enough for,” she said.
“Another thing I failed at is getting parents more involved in the association.”
But Kong is far from giving up, and although she plans to retire soon, she knows that the children’s unconditional love will keep her coming back.
“People like me stay because we feel appreciated. It’s because the children love the teachers and me unconditionally,” she says.
This year’s Star Golden Hearts Award is supported by Gamuda. For more articles, go to thestar.com.my/stargoldenheartsaward.