Witnessing a Miracle Worker in the Missions

Many of us know the story of Helen Keller, the American author and disability rights advocate. Maybe you read about her early life or learned about it from watching the movie The Miracle Worker. We know that she was born with all her senses intact. At the age of 19 months, Helen suffered an unnamed illness that robbed her of her sight and hearing, leaving her, as she said, "a prisoner in my own dark mind." She was for all intents and purposes without the communication and stimulation that a young child receives from family. It was the pairing of Helen with a woman who would not only become her teacher, but life-long companion, Anne Sullivan, that Helen said, "through the fingers of another, a ray of light from another soul touched the darkness of my mind."

One can only imagine the patience and persistence it took for that wonderful teacher to break through to her multi-challenged pupil.

If you had been with our team from The Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States (TPMS USA) on our mission visit to Malawi in December, imagination would no longer be necessary after our visit to the Chisombezi Deafblind Center run by the Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Their order's Constitution stresses work in education and service to the most marginalized.

The Sisters I met are a model of these rules.

First, the Sisters go to rural villages and seek out children in need of the Center's help. Either through genetics or childhood illness, they are deafblind -- they have a combined hearing and vision loss. Some of the children have limited cognitive functions as well.

In most cases, the Sisters help parents to understand that there is support and hope for the children at the Deafblind Center. The students learn communication skills, how to socialize in a community setting, along with daily living and mobility skills.

While touring the center, I watched as a Sister worked one-on-one with a teenaged boy whose intelligence had been set free by his teacher's finger spelling in his hand. When we were introduced, he proceeded to "get to know" me the only way we both shared -- by touch. As he felt my hair (it's very different from his!), his hands came to the combs holding it back. He removed one, fiddled with it, then began to comb his own hair as he figured out what it was. The pride of knowledge exploded on his face! I put his hand on my smile, and we shared the moment.

Sister is just one of the staff's Miracle Workers. This boy's life will be forever changed "through the fingers of another."

- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.