Instead of the usual wassails and mistletoe-induced encounters, a school for the mentally challenged brought in the yuletide with the sale of tea eggs and rice dumplings as hundreds of local folk turned out for a fundraising event yesterday.
Over 60 civic groups and private organizations volunteered for the annual Christmas Extravaganza Carnival at the Catholic Hua Kuang Social Welfare Foundation, located in a small town in Hsinchu.
For the entertainment section, students at the Hua Kuang Mental Development Center dressed up as festive punk rockers and jigged to Taiwanese folk tunes. Though the students were somewhat uncoordinated and offbeat, the crowd cheered loudly when they came on the stage.
Other students with various disabilities participated in the event by helping out at the food booths. There were even students dressed up as Mary and Joseph of Bethlehem in a photo booth.
Nature Pong, mother of a severely handicapped daughter, expressed her sincere gratitude to the town's folks for their unwavering support of the school.
"As it is for all children, Christmas is the most anticipated holiday of the year among the students at the school. The teachers take months to get the students ready for the performance," said Pong whose daughter has been at the school for more than 10 years.
"This is the most special way to celebrate the holiday. Although my daughter cannot verbally share her happiness, I can feel her joy in her smiles. No one here discriminates against her because of her disability and that's why she feels so comfortable," Pong said.
Having been in operation for the past 23 years, the school has developed a unique kinship with the town. Locals know the students by name and regularly offer them the warmest salutations whenever they see meet.
Moreover, many local businesses offer free or discounted services such as cheap fruits and free haircuts to the students.
Bridging the gap
Aly Peng, who has been a member of the administrative staff at the school for the past 20 years, said the purpose of the carnival is to bridge the gap between the "normal" folk and the challenged population.
"Every vendor comes on a volunteer basis and all of the proceeds of the carnival will go to the school," said Peng.
Peng also added that over 100 groups signed up to help out, either to perform or to tend booths, though the campus only allows for 60 groups.
"The support is overwhelming," Peng added.
Volunteers from Jin-shan Buddhist Temple said they have been helping the school for more than 10 years and vowed to be available whenever the need rises.
"Although we are Buddhist and the school is Catholic, we are all here for one purpose - love. Love does not discriminate," said one volunteer.
Yesterday's jubilance continued as another group of students performed a skit based on Christian teachings of being the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
Stephan Jaschko, S.J, the founder of the school who is seen as "salt of the earth personified," came to Taiwan as a young missionary from Hungary 50 years ago. Now at the age of 95, Father Yeh, as he is fondly called, continues to work for the welfare of the less fortunate by building more schools for the special needs population.
The foundation offers services ranging from special education for the mentally challenged to support groups for terminally ill patients.