Born with severe sight and hearing impairments, it’s like Giang was trapped, unable to communicate with the world around her. But then, everything changed.
Giang sat on the back of her family’s motorbike, riding home after a full day. Her mother thought everything was going well, until out of the corner of her eye she saw something fly through the air and land on the side of the road.
“No! Not her hearing aids!”
Yes, 4-year-old Giang had apparently had enough noise for the day. But still — believe it or not — this was progress.
Born with a heart condition, as well as severe sight and hearing impairments, Giang has endured tremendous obstacles in her short life. Although her heart was mended shortly after birth, eye surgery only restored minimal sight to one of her eyes — and nothing could be done for her hearing.
As she grew, her sight and hearing impairments were like a wall — a wall keeping her from making friends, going to school, and even from basic communication with her family. At just a few years old, it was clear that Giang so badly wanted to learn and connect with the world, but she just couldn’t… It’s like she was trapped.
Giang just needed someone to give her a chance.
But like any other child with special needs in Vietnam, Giang had few options.
During the Vietnam War, American forces blanketed Hoi An and the surrounding region with the deadly chemical compound Agent Orange as they tried to fend off enemy troops. Thousands of innocent civilians died from exposure, and for more than two generations, women in areas once hit by Agent Orange have given birth to children with much higher-than-normal rates of physical and developmental disabilities.
But despite tremendous need, specialized therapies and programs for children with special needs are virtually non-existent in Vietnam. Determined to educate their daughter, Giang’s parents contacted numerous schools and daycare facilities — but every time, they were turned down. Not one school would enroll Giang.
“Poor children with disabilities in Vietnam are one of the most vulnerable groups of children,” says Thoa Bui, Holt’s senior executive of south and southeast Asia programs. “Lack of access to medical care and rehabilitation, poverty, discrimination because of their disability, isolation, and a lack of accommodation and special curriculum tailored for them in the classrooms are just some of the challenges that children with disabilities face in their everyday living.”
Every day, all day, Giang stayed home with her mother, who struggled as her daughter grew increasingly frustrated that no one could understand her — and expressed herself in the only way she knew how. She screamed, would lock herself in the bathroom for hours on end, and even began to harm herself. She was diagnosed with autism. Her family was exhausted, heartbroken for their daughter, and running out of options.
But then, when Giang was 3 years old, her family finally found some relief.
They discovered the Kianh Foundation — a school and day care center specifically for children with special needs. Situated in the quaint, stunning costal community of Hoi An, this first-of-its-kind school relies on the support of generous Holt donors to provide a world-class education to children from the poorest families of the region, often at no or little cost.
For families like Giang’s, which relies on the father’s income as a driver and the mother’s work raising chickens — not only for their daily needs, but for their substantial healthcare debts — the Kianh Foundation seems too good to be true.
Every day, over 100 children show up for class. They work with a therapist, overcome challenges and learn from teachers specially trained to educate children who have a wide range of special needs and abilities.
If anyone could help Giang, it would be them.
“The staff had never worked with a child who was deaf and blind before,” says Nhan Duong, Holt’s regional coordinator for Danang. “It was a learning curve for them.” Nevertheless, the Kianh Foundation welcomed Giang and enrolled her in their day program.
Every day, her parents brought her to the center, praying that they would find a way to get through to their daughter, to unlock her potential and future.
It didn’t take long for her teachers to realize that Giang had been misdiagnosed — she didn’t have autism. She simply behaved in the way of a child who had been given no way to communicate. In fact, they quickly learned that Giang’s cognitive development and potential was above average for children her age.
Every day, a teacher worked one on one with Giang. Through research, trial and error, and countless dedicated hours developing her skills, they finally figured out a way for Giang to communicate: Vietnamese sign language, signed into her small 3-year-old hands.
Now their time together was spent learning new words, and teaching her to sign back. For the first time, Giang could communicate.
But her teachers also recognized that Giang’s deafness was not absolute. There were resources to help her hear.
In 2015, Holt donors helped the Kianh Foundation purchase high-powered hearing aids. And for the first time, Giang could hear.
At first, she didn’t know quite what to think of it.
“Never having heard speech before, Giang could not distinguish it from other sounds she was hearing for the first time,” Nhan says.
The extreme increase in stimulation was too much at first. She became more disruptive in class, and then came the day that she threw her hearing aids to the side of the road from her family’s motorbike.
But they found the hearing aids, dusted them off and persevered.
The Kianh Foundation purchased an FM system to block out all background noise as they worked with her at the center, allowing her to focus in on her own voice and the voice of the person talking to her.
Progress was slow, and Giang’s behavior showed that she was still getting used to this new world.
But then one day, something clicked.
As if by magic, Giang began to follow along during lessons. She communicated in return. She completed tasks for herself. She engaged with the world.
“It was as if all the input she had been receiving suddenly came together for Giang,” says Nhan, “and she suddenly realized that she had some ability in this [communication] department.”
When Giang first came to the Kianh Foundation, she had already been labeled a “problem child.” Her needs were a challenge and anomaly to everyone around her. Her behavior was unhealthy and even a danger to herself and those around her. But she just needed someone to give her a chance. Someone to truly understand her needs, see through her behavior and give her the unique pairing of resources, therapy and personalized care she would need to thrive.
Through the care she received, Giang — her true self and personality — was uncovered.
“Her only problem [before] was that she could not interact or express herself to the outside world due to her sensory disabilities,” Nhan says.
Now 6 years old, Giang’s life has completely changed in just a few short years. She has realized her potential. And she can persevere with hope for the future.
How many other children with special needs are there in Vietnam, and around the world, who have yet to realize their potential? How many other children are there, like Giang, who just need a chance?
Giang, her future and her family have completely changed. She’s getting an education and she can appropriately and effectively express her feelings — she is thriving beyond what anyone ever thought possible for her.
At just 6 years old, it may be a few years until she will understand and communicate about the complete transformation that has occurred in her life. But the important part is that now she has the ability to communicate about this in the future — the ability to communicate about anything and everything she wants to — she can engage with the world, be known and reach her highest potential.
But for now, her parents — with full hearts — can express the difference it has made in their lives:
“There is no price that we can put on the help that we have received.”
Megan Herriott | Staff Writer