Talking to CEO: Viola Wong
How losing her beloved son made Viola Wong launch a center that changes children’s lives
Translated by Tao Tao, PhD Candidate, CUHK Business School. Abridged by Fang Ying, Senior Writer, China Business Knowledge @ CUHK
In this episode of the televised program Talking to CEO on Radio Television Hong Kong, hosted by Prof. Andrew Chi-fai Chan, Director of CUHK Business School’s Executive MBA Program, Viola Wong Ho Suk-ying, Founder and Vice Chairman of Executive Committee of Benji’s Center, which provides specialized professional speech therapy to children with communication problems, shares how she went through the pain of losing her beloved son and launched the center to help the children with special needs from low income families in Hong Kong.
A Bolt from the Blue
Prof. Chan: Giving birth to your baby at the age of 37 was a turning point in your life. When you found that he suffered from Down syndrome, how did you feel?
Viola Wong: Actually that has been what I feared the most. When I was a Scout, I had the chance to visit a special school in Kwai Fong and help them set up a scout group many times. Most of the participants there are children with Down syndrome. So I understand how hard it is to raise a child who has Down syndrome. Also, I learn that older mothers have a higher chance of carrying babies with Down syndrome. So at that time, I thought that if could get married and give birth between age 23 and 24, it would be best. But it turned out that I got married after I was 30. Since then, I had always been worried about the risk of being an older mother. Who would’ve thought it really happened to me when I had my son, Benji.
Apart from low intelligence, children with Down syndrome could have other diseases, such as thyroid, hearing and vision problems. I had even seen a child born with no ears because of the syndrome.
Prof. Chan: As Benji grew up, did he have other physical conditions apart from slow development of intelligence which made you exhausted?
Viola Wong: When he was six months old, he suffered from severe pneumonia and had to rely on the oxygen machine to breath. However, we were afraid that he, who was only six months old, would be struggling using a medical ventilator. So he was put in a medically induced sedation for sixty days. He was in intensive care for half a year before going to the extra care ward. The doctors even attempted to persuade us to give him up twice.
Fortunately, with a strong willpower, he got better afterwards. The doctor advised he should learn how to breathe by himself and he truly did it, with great effort sweating heavily. Finally, he got through the difficulty, and was discharged when he was one year and seven months old.
Prof. Chan: Although Benji was hospitalized when he was an infant for a long time, he entered the mainstream school afterwards because of your careful care and nurture. How did you make it?
Viola Wong: As a mother, I believe I have to train him properly. I attended courses and read many books in child development and set weekly goals. I also involved my husband and my maid in the training. Each of us was responsible for half an hour of his training every day. Besides that, we also taught him things in daily life. For example, we taught him how to pronounce the food he liked and encouraged him to order it by himself.
Building the Center in Memory of Benji
Prof. Chan: You’re a great mother who loved your son deeply. Unfortunately, five years later, Benji left you. It must be a severe blow to you. How long did it take you to heal?
Viola Wong: I don’t know how long. When he passed away, I couldn’t accept it at all. I even didn’t want to get up to face the reality. Fortunately, one month later, my husband and I started to plan for the opening of a speech therapy center, in the hope of helping children with communication problems like Benji, especially those from low income families. However, that would need a lot of money. The education and health fund we saved up for Benji could only support the center for several years. Therefore, we decided to set up a businesses model first, in order to support the center in a sustainable way.
In 2002, we became the agent of a famous Belgian chocolate brand, Leonidas, which was new to the Hong Kong market. Subsequently, through the introduction of the Belgian Consulate, we got to know a Michelin chef who is also the chef of the Belgian royal family. Under his guidance, we opened a restaurant afterwards. The social enterprise, with the chocolate shops and restaurant, generated stable revenue and we were able to establish the center in 2004. Since then, we put all our efforts in the center, which is another way of memorizing Benji. In those 13 years, we got busy working hard with our colleagues, and we didn’t even notice when exactly we came out of the shadow.
Prof. Chan: Although Benji lived with you for only five years, he changed you a lot. What did you learn from your son?
Viola Wong: Being selfless. Children with Down syndrome are very pure, simple and kind hearted. They do not think in a complex way. All they want is to get along well with others and share everything with others. They are just like angels, never fighting with others.
Language Services Change Children’s Lives
Prof. Chan: The Benji’s Center chose to offer language services. Is it because language is particularly important to children?
Viola Wong: Yes, that’s from my son’s personal experience. After receiving speech therapy treatment, Benji was able to express his feelings and communicate with others, which made him more confident and happier.
It has been more than 11 years since the center was established. We have witnessed several successful cases of autistic children. They lacked the ability of self- and could only throw things when they felt angry. However, after receiving the training in our center, they have learnt to express themselves. During the recent four to five years, we have seen that some autistic children or children with hyperactivity disorder in our center have made remarkable progress. Some even behave just like ordinary children.
Prof. Chan: In Benji’s Centre, you have organized a choir. These children are having trouble in speaking. But now you ask them to sing. Is that not a big challenge?
Viola Wong: The reason we have a choir is that we want to improve the children’s language ability and arouse their interest in speaking. We found that singing could truly help them make great progress. Music can also help them practice speaking at home. We also teach the parents to sing, so that they can teach their children at home.
Since we established the choir in May 2014, these children have performed in public for more than 20 times. They were so excited about the performance that they would even tell their neighbors and relatives about it two weeks before.
Learn to Accept Help from Others
Prof. Chan: Apart from assisting parents in training their children, you have invited them to candlelight dinners in your restaurant. Why?
Viola Wong: I would say that being a mother means no break throughout the year. Can any mother enjoy a holiday? I have visited many children’s homes, especially those with autism or hyperactivity disorder, and I understand what difficulties and challenges the parents are facing. I remember there was a child who could not help but going back and forth to turn on the tap. In less than two hours, he turned on the tap for at least 200 times. When raising such a child, one would easily suffer from depression. So after that home visit, I told my husband that we had to find ways to help those parents, at least giving them a chance to rest for a few hours.
Prof. Chan: Although you encountered a lot of difficulty times in your life, you’re still a positive and optimistic person. Is there any belief that encourages you?
Viola Wong: My belief is very old-fashioned: when there is love, there is hope. Facing the loss of our beloved ones, our life would certainly be very miserable. But if we isolate ourselves and reject love and support from others, it would only get worse. There is a saying: “It’s more blessed to give than to receive,” but I believe that we also need to learn how to accept others’ help. It’s not easy. But once we know how to accept others’ sympathy and help, it will be easier for us to get rid of the shadows in our lives, move on and start a new chapter.
Prof. Chan: The Benji’s Center has been established for more than 11 years. If Benji can hear you, what would you like to say to him?
Viola Wong: Last year, a parent wrote a letter to me with the words “A Letter to Benji” on the envelope. I opened it and it said: “Benji, don’t worry. Because of you, there are now many people who care and love your mom and dad.” I couldn’t help shedding tears when I was reading it.
If Benji can hear me, I would say to him: “You let us learn about love and selflessness. So today we are able to love other children, who are like you. Thank you, Benji. You have given us a happy and rich life.”
About Talking to CEO
Since 2002, CUHK EMBA has been running the Talking to CEO TV/radio program with Radio Television Hong Kong. Distinguished business leaders, academics and government officials have been invited to share their experiences and insights with CUHK alumni and students.
Chan, Andrew Chi-fai
Director, Executive MBA Programme
Head, Shaw College