My Hoang was thin. A 14-year-old girl with severe cerebral palsy, "she couldn't eat anything," says her mother, Tam. "It would get stuck in her throat." Unable to speak or easily move her hands, My couldn't tell her mother what was wrong.
In rural Vietnam, children with disabilities struggle with more than physical challenges. Their parents and teachers often don't know how to care for them, and neighbors may be unsupportive.
"There's still a belief that a child with disabilities is what parents have to pay for bad things they did in a past life," says Mai Vu, project officer for Catholic Relief Services in Vietnam. "Some parents even hide their children. They don't tell other people that they have a child with disabilities."
Children who can't walk, children who can't see or hear well, children with cerebral palsy or HIV—many of them face a life of isolation. Even those who could go to school often sit at home for lack of a wheelchair or a hearing aid.
Facing Dire Parenting Choices
Impoverished Vietnamese parents sometimes have to choose between working or taking care of their children. Tung, a single mother, frequently left her young son home alone while she sold soy milk in her village. She barred the door from the outside before heading for work. Hoang, not quite 5 years old, has multiple disabilities and cannot speak. In the past, "he just lay there," says Tung. "I didn't think he would move."
My was often on her own while her mother, Tam, ran errands and her father was out working in the rice fields. To help stem My's sometimes destructive behaviors, "I would tie her by her wrists to a stool," says Tam.
Tung and Tam love their children but didn't know what else to do. Without community support, and with no understanding of how to care for their children, both mothers watched despondently as Hoang and My made no progress.
Catholic Relief Services reaches out to parents who need help raising their children with disabilities. CRS customizes support to families based on their children's needs—food, medicine, physical therapy, transportation to school—and addresses them through Children First, a program supported by a private family foundation.
For My and Hoang, food was a high priority. CRS supplied rice, cooking oil and milk to supplement both families' meals. Through CRS, Tam discovered she could use more oil in her dishes to help her daughter gain weight. CRS also taught My's mother to chop vegetables into smaller pieces and to "cook soft foods so she could chew them better," says Tam. "I also learned that soft food isn't just rice and soup."
CRS staff explained to Hoang's mother that she should feed him even if he didn't seem hungry—and to do so before going to work in the morning. "Before, I didn't urge him to eat. He can't give a signal when he's hungry. If he didn't eat, I stopped," Tung says. "Now I cook him an egg separately." Both My and Hoang have gained much-needed weight.
'I Was So Surprised When I Saw Him Walking'
Next was helping the children use their limbs better. CRS recruits and trains community volunteers in physical therapy techniques to improve muscle control in arms, hands and legs.
Volunteer caregivers visit the children often and help guide the children through exercises. Over the course of 6 months, Hoang began taking his first steps. "I was so surprised when I saw him walking," says Tung. Now, instead of lying nearly motionless all day, Hoang wriggles in his mother's arms and runs in their yard.
Thinh, a petite girl in the Que Son area of Vietnam, is in constant pain because of severe arthritis. Walking tires her and carrying her small book bag is difficult.
Thinh is determined to get an education, though, and especially loves language and drawing classes. "I'm proud that she does well in school, even when she's in pain," says her father, a carpenter. "Even when it rains, she wants to go to school. She doesn't want to skip class."
In addition to food and school supplies, CRS provided Thinh's family with training in physical therapy. Her mother massages Thinh's arms and legs and gently works her joints. "Thinh has gained weight, and the rehab has reduced a lot of her pain," says her mother.
Less Pain, Big Gains
CRS gives tips on how parents can make their children's lives easier and safer. "Kids with cerebral palsy crawl, so the floor needs to be clean," says Linh Nguyen, program coordinator for CRS in Vietnam. "We teach parents simple things: If your child has trouble holding a pen, make the pen bigger."
CRS might show parents how to make a specially designed chair from bamboo. One father made a chair for his daughter with bicycle pedals so she could exercise her legs.
The Children First program also pays for hearing aids, eye surgery and eyeglasses. A little boy named Nam rejoiced after being treated for crossed eyes. "I am very happy to see better," says Nam. "I do not feel pain anymore as before and I look more handsome." Nam's teacher observes that, with his improved vision, he's doing better in school. And, says the teacher, Nam "does not stay home from school some days each week because of his eye pain."
Teaching the Teachers
Teaching parents how to care for their children is one challenge. Another is working with school staff to ensure children with disabilities aren't left out of the classroom.
"Many teachers refuse to have a child with disabilities in their class because they're afraid and don't know what to do," says Vu, a CRS project officer. "First, we work to overcome that fear."
CRS shows teachers ways to meet the special needs of their students. The teachers create individual development plans for each child and learn how to motivate their students to go to school. Small changes—such as placing a special needs student near the teacher's desk—can make a difference. Classmates are encouraged to help out.
Thanh, age 8, and his older brother, Vu, age 10, both have trouble moving their arms and legs because of their dwarfism. Their teacher, Doung, says they can make it through the first few lessons of the day, but then tire. "One student is strong and carries them when they need it," says Doung.
CRS arranged for Thanh and Vu's school in the Cam Lo area to waive its regular fee for them. With more support from teachers and classmates, both boys are doing well: Vu is particularly good at math and Vietnamese.
Through the Children First program, more than a thousand children with disabilities are less hungry, in less pain, and are able to learn more. Families hampered by poverty are now better equipped to raise their children.
"I've gotten so much support," says My's mother Tam, who is particularly grateful to the volunteer physical therapist who visits them. "I hope my daughter continues to improve."
"CRS has helped me not just materially, but spiritually," says Hoang's mother. "Thanks to the project, my son can develop."
Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.