A holiday candle or a piece of Plexiglass could be the difference between a rich, productive life or an existence spent on society’s margins. That’s because those two seemingly mundane items are key components in the program run by Message de Paix, which helps the handicapped and recovering substance abusers find new places for themselves in a world that often disenfranchises those two groups.
“We want to change the mentality of the Lebanese society that people aren’t here out of pity or because they’re no good,” says Anita Khoury, social worker for Message de Paix. “They have certain capabilities— they need a system to show it.”
Social Worker Anita Khoury (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
Khoury and her colleague George Nehme are part of Message de Paix’s lay ministry that operates under the auspices of the Maronite archdiocese here.
Message de Paix serves about 60 mentally handicapped clients between the ages of 16-65 who come to the center six hours a day for five days a week— free of charge—to participate in workshops or activity centers, depending on their level of cognitive and physical capacity. The workshop clients are grouped into four divisions: They make or decorate candles; prepare food for staff and other clients; or work in the Plexiglass workshop, a for-profit organization called Plexi Pro. Through their work, the clients receive training to help them become more self-sufficient and possibly earn their own income.
More important, Nehme says, they learn to have more faith in themselves when they see what they are truly capable of. For some clients, simple tasks such as listening to music, producing tiny handicrafts or making Jell-O to share at the center are actually great leaps. “It’s like training newborns,” Nehme says. “We teach them basics we take for granted. … Everything is a step in their training.” The program includes physical, educational and social development as the staff of 20 employees tries to bring out what’s already inside each client, Khoury says.
Woman displays decorative candle. (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
Message de Paix has an annual budget of $200,000-$300,000 per year, with 30-35 percent of that coming from a contract with the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs. The difference is self-financed, which is where Plexi Pro comes in. Plexi Pro is an income-generating arm of Message de Paix, as clients craft saleable products for businesses and industrial consumers.
And it’s through Plexi Pro that the ministry reaches out to recovering addicts. Those in recovery are coordinated by a Maronite church-based program. That program lasts for 15 months, with the final three in the Plexi Pro workshop, which Khoury explains is something of a laboratory to test whether a recovering addict indeed is ready to be re-integrated into society.
At the conclusion of the three-month period, many of the Plexi Pro workers return to a previous job or resume their education. Nehme says this kind of outreach is a key part of his commitment to lay ministry.
Where the church addresses issues such as poverty, Message de Paix fills in other gaps. “The main goal is to help with contemporary problems, such as drugs,” Nehme says. A bonus of the rehab program is the symbiotic relationships that form between Message de Paix’s handicapped clients and the recovering addicts working for Plexi Pro. “The addicts have proven to be more understanding of the needs of the handicapped,” Nehme says, “maybe because they come from a background where they had a problem.”