A Place of Smiles

David Giles, an Interserve England and Wales Partner, writes about a project which cares for disabled children in Thailand.

People with disabilities are stigmatised in many cultures but in Thailand the outlook can be even worse. In its reincarnational belief system – a mixture of Buddhism and animism – being born with a disability can be considered to be a punishment for misdeeds in a previous life. Parents of disabled children are often ashamed and embarrassed, or simply unable to afford or understand the special care that their child requires. This can result in disabled children being simply handed over to the Thai authorities.

Over 2000 of these children are accommodated in state-run wards in the Pakkred district of Nonthaburi, north of the capital Bangkok. Facilities are basic but slowly improving. However, little is provided except for food, water, a change of nappy and a mattress. That’s it. Nothing for the children to do. No stimulation. No colours. No sounds. No love. No affection.

Nearly 25 years ago, Wasan and Chariya Saenwian, Christians from a Buddhist background, decided that this wasn’t good enough. They founded the Christian Care Foundation for Children with Disabilities (CCD) as a Thai NGO with the objective of providing help to abandoned children and those who have been given into government care by families too poor to support them. Their ministry is inspirational and wholistic and CCD now offers a range of different services.

At three of the government-run homes, CCD runs daycare centres. Here, children can be taken out of the institutional surroundings for a period of learning, fun and stimulation. It’s usually the only time of the week that they will enjoy friendship, love and individual attention. Heading to a CCD daycare session after the stark environment of the wards is a breath of fresh air. The arriving children have expectant, beaming faces, and are immediately welcomed into a music time. They beat drums, rattle shakers and sing along with some Sunday school favourites – CCD makes no secret of their Christian faith. The daycare centres also provide educationally- and developmentally-appropriate activities for each age range and ability, as well as a well-equipped sensory room.

On a separate site, CCD’s Rainbow House cares for up to fifty youngsters on a residential basis. After physical and occupational therapy and special needs education, many Rainbow House residents are successfully integrated into local schools to progress their academic development. For the older ones, Baan Piam Rak (House of Love) is a nearby group home which provides an opportunity for independent living. Residents are given life-skills training, including cooking, shopping and washing.

Reuniting families is another of CCD’s key aims, as founder Wasan Saenwian enthuses: ‘Love is kind, and we aim to rescue the lives of children. One of our goals is to put kids back into a stable family.’ Fifteen have been returned to their natural families so far, but it is often impossible as parents routinely give false details when handing their child over to the authorities. The next-best option, Wasan explains, is adoption: ‘The Bible teaches about the importance of the family – and if we can’t put kids back into their original families, we try to find families who will accept and nurture them.’ He has put his words into action by adopting a son himself, bringing the number of adopted children to 38.

Community-based rehabilitation is a growing aspect of CCD’s work. This involves teaching the parents what disability is and how to care for their disabled child. Through a network of centres in four provinces, CCD helps to share the burden of supporting disabled children through support groups and practical help such as toy libraries and assistance in accessing medical facilities. Training is also provided, to help older children develop essential skills.

The scale of the problem in Thailand is huge. ‘Too much to cope with,’ confesses Wasan. ‘Thinking of the two-thousand-plus is too much to bear but taking each child as an individual – on a one-toone basis – the impact on that child is huge.’

With culturally-entrenched perceptions of disability to overcome, it’s often an uphill struggle. ‘We need to develop a culture of equal rights for disabled people in Thailand,’ continues Wasan, ‘to counter a lack of knowledge about disability to ensure that disabled people have a good quality of life – and to enable them to take their rightful place in mainstream society.’

This is where Interserve England & Wales Partners David and Sarah Giles come in. Working with CCD as International Communications and Development Officers, the couple are involved in activities such as promotion, advocacy and media relations. They are currently fundraising for a plot of land adjacent to Rainbow House which will be used to build a new vocational training centre and apartments for independent living. ‘It’s a fantastic organisation to be working in,’ says David. ‘The work is so varied – we can be helping out on a children’s camp one day and being interviewed on BBC local radio the next.’

‘While it’s relatively easy to talk about disability in the Western media, it’s much harder to achieve positive coverage in the Thai press. In a context where disabled people are still being hidden away, it takes a brave editor to publish inspiring articles about the achievements of CCD’s children. We know that cultural shift doesn’t happen overnight, but ultimately we are trying to make the unlovable lovable – just like Jesus did. That needs sensitivity, creativity and a great deal of prayer.’