The Lost Paradise: A Beacon of Hope for Children with Special Needs

By Geetha K

The year was 1978. A young man from small-town Kulim in Kedah Malaysia had just come out of a nerve-wracking selection interview with a team of bigwigs from the medical faculty, including its Dean, of the National University of Singapore.

Walking out of the room, sweating in his smart, borrowed clothes, the young man suddenly realised that he would not be able to take up the offer, even if it was a full-fee scholarship. Just to get to Singapore he had to borrow RM50 from relatives, the same relatives who had already given much money to support his older brother’s education. There was no way he too could approach them for further financial support.

A decision had to be made. And fast.

“I ran back to the room, knocked and opened the door to face the confused panel once again. I remember someone telling me the interview was over and that I had done well and could go home. That’s when I plucked up the courage to tell them that if they couldn’t give me an offer to cover my travel and living expenses too, there was no way I could ever dream of studying in Singapore,” laughs Dr Chew Yu Gee, as he reminisces his younger days as a precocious, brilliant scholar in the waiting, whose only stumbling block was poverty. His family was so poor that he needed to tap rubber, work in farms and sell ice-creams to afford school. Even a belt to keep hand-me-down pants from falling was a luxury, so he had to make do with raffia strings instead.

By acquiescing to the young man’s bold plea and giving a truly deserving candidate the opportunity of a lifetime, the National University of Singapore not only earned his eternal gratitude but also gained itself merit for eventually producing an exemplary doctor and philanthropist.

Forty years on, Dr Chew is a highly successful, much-respected pediatrician. He is the medical director of the Hope Children’s Hospital and a resident pediatrician who owns seven clinics all over Penang.

It was in the midst of building clinic number eight, within the grounds of his enviable seafront home in the prized Batu Ferringhi stretch, that life took another turn for the good doctor. Dr Chew’s desire to give back to society was already very strong and he was known for giving poor patients free treatment, but what was to come next, is what makes the man he is today.

Sitting with his beautiful wife Melody at a table in the lobby cum coffee house of The Lost Paradise Resort, a niche boutique hotel by the sea, Dr Chew tells his story with exuberance. The lobby used to be their living room, and the hotel, their house.

The Lost Paradise’s lobby overlooks the Lighthouse Academy, which was supposed to have been clinic number eight as Dr Chew had wanted to operate from close to home. The Lighthouse Academy is a school for children with special needs, which also accepts mainstream students.

“If you look carefully there are classrooms with special oxygen fittings meant for surgical rooms,” Dr Chew chuckles, talking about his clinic and retirement plan that was never meant to be. “Life was going very well for us, in fact. This vast sea-fronting property, big house, big grounds; it would have been the perfect retirement plan and place.”

Melody, a graduate teacher, also from the National University of Singapore, heads the Lighthouse Academy. She remembers clearly the day her husband made that call to stop construction work of the clinic, until further notice. They were in Chennai, India, attending the wedding of a friend’s child and on a free day had visited the Santhome Cathedral, built over the tomb of Saint Thomas by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century.

Dr Chew adds in his characteristic affable manner, “I was completely overwhelmed by the thought of this man [St Thomas] leaving Europe centuries ago to come and completely dedicate his life to serve in an entirely different environment, knowing full well there was no going back. That kind of devotion and selflessness moved me deeply and I knew right away it was time to stop.”

And so he made the call to immediately stop work at his new clinic. He also treated the incident as a calling to stop focussing on accumulating more wealth.

“I had made a lot of money, made good investments and raised four sons and a daughter who were all doing well, and still, there was no stopping me, and I wanted to build yet another clinic. When will this desire to gain more wealth end and is it really giving me genuine joy? It was a question I started asking myself as I stood there reading the apostle’s story…”

The answer, unknown to the doctor then, was already in his life – in the smiles of gratitude and the numerous ‘catch of the day’ that he receives to this day, in return for payment, from his very poor patients.

Dr Chew was quick to act on the moment of inspiration in India. “The moment you realise life is about love and giving, you will feel a big shift in your body and mind. I felt it that day.”

Doctor on a Mission

While ‘the moment’ had happened, Dr Chew and Melody still had no idea what they wanted to replace the clinic with. It was only about one year later that the couple decided on a school for the poor and needy. The focus on special needs children was inspired by their own hardships in having to deal with an autistic child. Despite his condition, their autistic son is now a successful doctor.

Melody explains. “Having gone through the pain and struggles of raising an autistic son, we knew we were well-positioned to give hope to parents in a similar position. Not all schools have the capacity to deal with such children and often these children end up as problematic adults. It takes a totally different approach to care for these children, to address their problems early on and work on their strengths, instead of labeling them as this or that.”

Indeed, in Lighthouse Academy, all children are streamed together as much as possible and the flexible, interactive curriculum, with lots of scope for music, story-telling, writing and acting, allows for this. If the system helps calm special needs children, it helps mainstream children too to develop at their own pace.

“Many of our mainstream students are those that cannot cope with the general competitiveness in government schools, where unfortunately attention is centered on high performing students. Sadly, we also have parents tell us that some international schools too cannot or will not accommodate their children. I know what it is to see that kind of sadness and hopelessness when parents come to us to inquire if we might be able to help school their children,” says Melody.

Melody’s eyes well up as she continues. “I know how desperate a parent feels when their child is wailing or throwing tantrums in public for no apparent reason. You get looks from people that make you feel like it’s your fault. You suffer from anxiety each time a teacher or school calls to tell you they can’t control your disruptive ‘violent’ child. People cannot understand that these days there are many strands of various syndromes that cause social disabilities and disorders, some of which aren’t visible like a physical handicap.”

In quiet, demure fashion Melody stresses on the one quality that the couple wants to impart to children studying in the Lighthouse Academy, and also their parents – Hope.

To further walk the talk, Dr Chew next came up with another brainwave. “Well, due to health reasons I’ve had to cut down on my practice and needed to think of a way for our school to sustain itself. Our children weren’t living with us anymore. Three of our sons were by then practicing doctors and our only daughter too was already away studying medicine. Our other son, having decided he didn’t want to become a doctor like the rest, started studying environmental science in Australia. With just the two of us left, what really was the need for such a big house?”

Once again Dr Chew lets out his infectious laugh, making it seem like it was a very small matter…to move above their school, putting up with noise and intrusion so that their home could be converted into a hotel, the Lost Paradise Resort, as it is now known.

The eye-catching resort is an eclectic mix of raw creativity. Everywhere you turn you cannot miss a wooden carving, hanging plant, unique mosaic or inspirational quote. It’s quaint and melancholic and resonates plenty of love, to match its charming owners.

In the Lost Paradise Resort, guests get to enjoy spacious, unique rooms, many overlooking the Melaka Straits, but more than anything else, they also get the added satisfaction of knowing their holiday is paying for the education and care of the Lighthouse Academy children.

Dr Chew and Melody no longer live above the school, since they’ve moved to their other 11 bedroom bungalow adjacent to the hotel and school. It comes as no surprise when once again the doctor confesses that they only occupy one room in their sprawling home.

Why? Again a sheepish grin from the doctor. “Children from the school occupy the rest of the house as many simply stay back after school or during holidays. At any one time, there are around 20 of them there.”

Dr Chew looks at his wife and gives her due credit. “It would not be possible to do any of this if not for a supporting wife,” he says, adding, “…and understanding children too, since they have to quite literally share their parents with so many others. I’m blessed in that sense.”

As much as Dr Chew feels blessed, he is, himself, a huge blessing to a large community. It comes as no surprise that Dr Chew and Melody are looked upon as absolute beacons of lights that Saint Thomas himself would be proud of!

What advice does the doctor have for anyone inspired to follow in their tracks?

“Kill the ghost within. The ghost that constantly wants to attain more and more material wealth. It’s not wrong to work towards wealth but it should not be the sole motivation and everyone should delve deep into their hearts from time to time to realise the love within, which can only accumulate when you give.”