For generations of children with special needs in Vietnam, school has been something only other children get to do. But now, in one rural community, over one hundred sponsored children are shattering stereotypes, exceeding expectations — and loving every minute of it.
A longer version of this story originally appeared in the spring 2018 Holt sponsorship magazine.
Khang swivels his head and shakes his body to the pop-y, upbeat dance tempo that reverberates off the tile floor and blares out into otherwise quiet fields of rice on this cool January day. He opens his mouth wide and snaps it shut in a toothy grin, reaching out for a friend who dances alongside him.
Some of Khang’s movements are involuntary — a result of the impaired motor control characteristic of individuals with cerebral palsy. His arms are constantly outstretched, his fingers bent and rigid. He can’t stand without assistance, and as he dances, a teaching assistant sits in a chair behind him, holding him up by the waist. But at this moment, lost in the euphoria of dancing with his friends on a Friday afternoon, Khang seems completely and blissfully oblivious to his limitations.
Until just a few years ago, Khang’s physical limitations practically consumed him — overtaking parts of his life that should not, and do not, have anything to do with having cerebral palsy. With no school nearby that offered special education — and no other option — Khang’s mom began taking him to a daycare center while she worked during the day.
Although the daycare supposedly offered rehabilitation for children with special needs, Khang says he just sat, all day, every day, treated like an inanimate object. As he struggled with speech, and had never received speech therapy, he sat silently — afraid to talk. But like any other 7-year-old boy, Khang craved connection and interaction. He cried every day that he had to go back to the care center.
“I felt so sad and bored,” says Khang, his voice now loud and firm. “There was nobody to play with me.” No one recognized that locked inside Khang’s body was a bright and funny little boy with a mind still malleable and eager to learn.
Khang’s mom is in her 20s, wears her hair back in a ponytail and has the same lovely smile as her youngest son. She works as a food and beverage manager at a resort near her home in Hoi An — an historic port village and World Heritage Site that draws thousands of international tourists every year. She speaks English well, and when we meet her, she walks confidently over to greet us.
“I didn’t have much hope for him in the past,” she says, holding her son’s hand, their fingers neatly interwoven. “My only hope for him was that he would be able to take care of his personal hygiene.”
To pay for daycare, Khang’s mom tells us it cost her $150 per month — $50 more than she pays every month in rent. On limited income, she and her husband could barely afford food and other basic needs for themselves and their two boys. “We were in an extremely difficult time,” she says.
But then she heard about a special school that had recently opened near her home in Hoi An — a school that offered a curriculum designed specifically for children with special needs. Children who had never gone to school before. Children kept hidden away in their homes or, out of poverty and desperation, sent for care in an orphanage. Children with active minds and uncooperative bodies who had given up hope of ever escaping the corner where they sat, or the bed where they lay, lonely and bored and misunderstood.
A Special School for Kids with Special Needs
Khang’s mom quickly enrolled her son at the school, called “Kianh Foundation Center.” She then learned that because of a handful of generous sponsors, she would only have to pay a very small fee for Khang to attend. It sounded too good to be true.
For the first time, outside of his family, her son would be seen as a person – deserving of love and attention, of education and opportunity, and capable of becoming a contributing and valued member of his community.
As she would come to find out, however, Khang’s special needs did not set him apart from his community. In fact, in their small town of 120,000 people, thousands of other kids and adults shared Khang’s story and experience. It’s a story inextricably tied to one of the darkest chapters in Vietnam’s history.
“In this small catchment area, we have every kind of disability that you can imagine,” explains Jackie Wrafter, the founder and director of Kianh Foundation.
Located in the impoverished, semi-rural area of Dien Ban, between the coastal city of Danang and where Khang and his family live in Hoi An, the Kianh Foundation Center is enveloped by tropical foliage — regrowth over generations of the same lush foliage that the U.S. military doused with the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The dioxins used in Agent Orange are tied to at least a dozen health conditions, including birth defects.
Although the government does not comprehensively track rates of disability, their most recent census — conducted in 2009 – estimated about 8 percent of the population to have difficulty with vision, hearing, movement or cognition. Actual rates, however, are likely much higher.
“A lot of children [at Kianh Foundation] aren’t on any government lists whatsoever,” says Jackie. “Also, diagnosis is not as good as it could be.”
What is well documented, however, are comparative rates from province to province. The ten provinces most heavily sprayed with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War are the same provinces with the highest rates of disability. Among these ten provinces is Quang Nam — where Dien Ban, and Kianh Foundation, are located.
This distinction — this living legacy of the Vietnam War — is something that can be both seen and felt in the community of Hoi An. “It just really feels,” Jackie says, “like there are more [special needs] than at home.”
An expat from Britain, Jackie has vibrant red hair and speaks in the distinctive Liverpool accent made famous by The Beatles. Eighteen years ago, Jackie took a year off from her job in publishing to travel, and search for something different to do with her life. She just wasn’t sure what. Not until she stepped inside one very dark, hot and smelly room in an orphanage in Hoi An, Vietnam.
They had about 70 kids at the orphanage,” says Jackie, who visited the orphanage at the urging of a friend. “But at the time, they had 16 children with disabilities who they just kept locked in the room — just basically being kept alive.”
When she opened the door, the children moved and stared up at the light — mesmerized. Many of them lay in fetal positions. Some banged their heads against their beds.
“They were all very physically disabled, and they seemed really cognitively disabled as well,” Jackie says.
But as Jackie and her friend spent more time with the children, they began to see a light of recognition in many of their eyes.
“We found out lots of them had really quite minimal learning disabilities, but they just kind of closed down because nothing ever happened in their lives,” Jackie says. “The more time we spent with them over a month period, the more and more they began to open up. And it was really quite exciting to see.”
Jackie admits that neither she nor her friend had any training in how to work with children with special needs. “We really didn’t know what we were doing,” she says. But by talking to them and engaging with them, they could see very clearly that these children had active minds, eager to interact with the outside world.
Regardless of their abilities, they were, each of them, a person — equally deserving of love and attention.
“That,” Jackie says, “is when we decided to do more.”
Robin Munro | Senior Writer
This is an excerpt of a longer story that originally appeared in the spring 2018 Holt sponsorship magazine. Read the full story here!
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