A local Catholic teen is raising her voice on behalf of children’s rights – and taking her message to the United Nations.
Earlier this month, Amilyn Thomas, a senior at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown, delivered an opening address on behalf of the United States at the U.N.’s Day of General Discussion (DGD) on “Children’s Rights and Alternative Care.”
The Sept. 16-17 online forum — organized by the U.N.’s Committee on the Rights of the Child and attended by participants from around the world — examined the complex issues faced by children separated from their families due to a range of circumstances, including foster care, poverty, conflict, migration and disabilities.
Thomas, part of a 30-member U.N. Youth Advisory Team, spoke from the heart: her 9-year-old brother Emmanuel suffers from cardiofacialcutaneous syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes congenital heart disease, skin abnormalities and intellectual disabilities.
Typically diagnosed during childhood, the condition affects only an estimated 200-800 people throughout the world. It has no known cure, although some treatments are available.
“Emmanuel cannot walk, he has very low muscle mobility and he can’t sit up as confidently as we can,” Thomas said in her Sept. 16 address. “He also cannot digest food and has a feeding tube.”
Due to complications from seizures, Emmanuel has been at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for the past six months, so Thomas knows the day-to-day reality of family-child separation.
“Lucky for him, his devoted family cares for him and makes sure that he receives proper medical treatment, education and therapies,” said Thomas. “However, the reality of this world is that every child with special needs does not have access to that care, and often that child doesn’t even have the option to voice their opinion on what constitutes quality care.”
Participating in the discussion was a chance to “hear first from children and young speakers who have experiences with alternative care and child protection systems,” said Thomas, so that UN leaders and partners could learn “what needs to change, and how to implement that change.”
One of the first steps in that process, said Thomas, is breaking free of the “personal bubble” that keeps many “naïve to the concerns and problems of other countries.”
(Related: Watch Amilyn Thomas’ Sept. 16 address at the United Nations Day of General Discussion on Children in Alternative Care.)
Over the past year and a half, that’s exactly what Thomas and her collaborators (who hailed from 19 different countries) did, working with facilitators from children’s rights organizations such as SOS Children’s Villages, Hope and Homes for Children, and Lumos, a nonprofit founded by author J.K. Rowling.
“We discussed how to make the DGD child-friendly, how to shape consultations conducted with other children and how to select impactful speakers,” said Thomas.
Serving on the advisory team was a natural step for Thomas, who has already given several addresses on emotional intelligence to students in her native Kerala, India. This past summer, she interned with CHOP’s critical care medicine research team, and plans to become a pediatric surgeon to treat children with disabilities.
Mount St. Joseph dean of studies Donald Holdren said Thomas’ work “both inside and outside of the classroom” embodies that school’s mission to “empower young women to become agents of transformation” amid today’s rapidly shifting “moral and ethical challenges.”
In that work, Thomas draws on her deeply held Catholic faith. She is a member of not one but two parishes in the archdiocesan area — Visitation B.V.M. in Norristown and St. Thomas Syro Malabar Catholic Forane Church in Northeast Philadelphia, one of some two dozen ritual churches that along with the Latin church comprise the entire Catholic community in the Philadelphia region.
Thomas is also active in Jesus Youth, a global Catholic movement approved by the Holy See that originated in India and has spread to more than 25 countries.
“I think overall my faith has helped me realize that to truly be an example of Christ and to truly live out my Christian identity, I not only have to pray and go to church, but I have to help my dear neighbor,” said Thomas. “I take it a step further when I speak out on these topics, and faith allows me to take that extra step, while thinking about what Christ would do.”
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