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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Sofia’s Smile
Missionaries see God’s face in Cancun center for handicapped children.

coloring kid
Coloring with the children always brings them joy.

By Erin Rockenhaus

It looks like giant neon-colored Leggos. I had heard a lot about this place, but this is not what I was expecting to see. Walking in the big glass sliding doors, a security guard greeted us and asked to inspect our bags.

In the central waiting area, all lined with rows of colorful chairs, I stopped to look out the wall of windows onto the gardens full of swaying coconut and palm trees. If this place was overwhelming for me, what must the first impression be for the simple Mexican families who come here?  Everything is spacious, brightly decorated, full of natural light, cooled by air-conditioning, and teeming with smiling faces dressed in colored smocks.

It’s a very different type of medical center on the outskirts of Cancun. The patients come in and go out rhythmically. All of the patients are children, most of them are poor, and all of them are disabled. 

A yellow-clad
inside the CRIT play area
A view of the CRIT play area.
woman waved at us as she walked speedily toward the reception desk. “Welcome to the CRIT Cancun! I will be showing you around this morning and afterward you can help us today by entertaining the children while they are waiting for their appointments.”

I learned that this CRIT, (Centro de Rehabilitación Infantil Teletón or Telethon Children’s Rehabilitation Center), was one of 15 in different parts of Mexico.  It is funded by an annual nation-wide Telethon that started in 1997. They offer this rehabilitation for free or for very low cost to poor families of handicapped children.  We started the tour on the therapy wing. The guide led us into a room for physical therapy that had children of all ages with their therapists—one is strapped to a machine that teaches her legs how to walk, another strengthening her arms, another is practicing how to climb the stairs alone.  The next room was set up like a house to teach the kids how to manage and get around for themselves. Across the hall a little girl listened to music as she built a colored block house—sensory stimulation.  Another room for speech therapy, a place for family counseling, a wing for medical examinations and
crit staff with kids
The CRIT staff gives personalized attention to each patient.
tests, a cafeteria, an outdoor play gym designed for disabled children, a group of dancers under a pavilion dancing with the kids in wheel chairs.

Tears came as I sat down in the lobby to take it all in. This is love put into action, I thought, this is just how we should treat the little ones.

My eyes fell on a little girl in a red padded full-body wheel chair. She was smiling at me, so sweetly.

“Do you want to put together a puzzle or listen to a story book?” I asked, smiling at her mom.

Her eyes lit up and she motioned to the table where the puzzles were. I spent the next hour enjoying her beautiful smile each time we put a piece into the puzzle. Her hands shook with the effort as she lowered each piece carefully and patted it to make it fit. Then, she looked around to make sure I noticed what she did, and then beamed every time I said, “Good job!” Her smile took her whole body’s effort, but I don’t think I have seen a happier child in my life, nor a more beautiful smile. 

After Sofia left me, I looked for another friend and found Maria. Maria was trying to color with her one bent arm, smiling all the time. 

“Do you want more colors?” I said as I sat next to her.

A big nod and a one-toothed smile.

I was in love. How could I resist? I lost myself coloring and talking to my new friend.

Finally, I was left alone in the waiting room, all the patients were being seen and the CRIT was approaching its closing time. 

In a few short hours I had made new friends and my heart renewed.  Some people fear children with disabilities.  It is common in the United States and other countries for doctors to counsel women to abort a handicapped child.  The doctors and the families only consider the financial burden and the extra care that such a life requires. They are missing out. 

One day with handicapped children is all that is needed to discover the secret gift that they are.  Encountering them in love and acceptance reveals just how precious they are.  The light shining in their innocent faces is a glimpse of God’s own face.  That who I saw in Sofia’s smile.

Author’s note: This June and July, I spent a month on a humanitarian and evangelizing mission to the Mayan part of Mexico with the Mission Youth Corps International Volunteer Program.  The account written above is true, but names are changed to protect the privacy of the individuals. For information on the CRIT in English see:



Related links

Helping Hands Medical Missions
St Rafael Guizar y Valencia Missionary Center

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