Friendship: A Passion for Children With Disabilities

Friendship: A Passion for Children With Disabilities

Two Children in Families’ staff share their “messy” start to a deep and beautiful friendship.

A motorbike, carrying a petite Khmer driver and her American passenger, was being carefully navigated down the dirt road toward the home of a local family. Recent rainfall rendered the road muddy and rutted. Suddenly, the driver struggled to maintain control of the motorbike as they slid off the embankment, where the passenger was inevitably dumped into the dense mud.

Lisa on the back of a moto headed to a family visit.

Onlookers shouted in Khmer, “Barang (foreigner) in the mud! Barang in the mud!”

Srey Ny, the driver, panicked thinking, “I just crashed with my new boss!!!”

She surveyed the wreckage to see Lisa, her passenger, laughing as she slipped and slid her way out of the mess.  And, so began the friendship of Srey Ny and Lisa.

More than five years later, Srey Ny and Lisa laugh hysterically recounting their sludgy beginning into friendship.

Roles we love and have passion for make work feel natural. Working with a friendship bond, makes it even better. The creation of Children In Families (CIF)’s ABLE program drew together an incredible team and bonded Srey Ny and Lisa as more than coworkers, as friends.

Pioneering ABLE Program

Lisa moved to Cambodia from America in March 2012. She joined CIF, tasked with pioneering a program to address the needs of CIF’s foster children with disabilities. Her initial work was to gather information, learn from other NGO’s, and address immediate needs. Early on, she knew she could not run this program on her own. So, Lisa advertised for a Cambodian Physiotherapist.

It is a role difficult to fill in Cambodia. Cambodia currently has about one physiotherapist for every 10,000 people, according to an article by the Phnom Penh Post. Stigma and misunderstanding of what physiotherapists do has significantly hurt the numbers of Khmer students who pursue this field.

She interviewed several candidates, but when she met Srey Ny, she knew she found the perfect fit. Lisa said, “She [Srey Ny] shared the same heart and vision for children with disabilities. It was in her DNA to champion these children. We are kindred spirits in this.”

In a culture where disabilities aren’t always understood well and people with disabilities are  easily marginalized, Srey Ny stands out. “My mother worked in an NGO that cared for children with disabilities. We lived on location with the children. I genuinely love them.”

Srey Ny’s passion showed through as she continued to explain how difficult it is for people with disabilities in Cambodia. “Lisa and I care about each other and understand each other. It is difficult to find Cambodians who care about people with disabilities. A lot of it is lack of knowledge, as well as survival. People need to make money and children with disabilities may not be able to provide for their families. I want to see this change and for people to value them for who they are. I want to help them get jobs.”

“Empowering people with disabilities has not been high priority in Cambodia,” Lisa said.  She’s careful to not speak negatively of the culture but points out realities and hurdles they face.

A Heart for People With Disabilities

Sovann, Srey Ny, and Lisa with one of CIF’s ABLE children.

Srey Ny pursued a degree in Physiotherapy specifically to help people with disabilities. It was a family affair, as her sister became an interpreter at the Deaf Development Program (DDP). DDP works to teach and empower the deaf community across Cambodia tearing down false perceptions of deaf people.

Lisa also has a sister who has helped guide her toward a career in physical therapy. In Lisa’s case, her sister has disabilities. Growing up with her has given Lisa empathy for those with disabilities and their families. Together, Srey Ny and Lisa are helping to change mindsets by loving children with disabilities and fighting to see them make progress. Lisa said, “Our common heart for the kids was a bridge to our friendship.”

From the very beginning, Lisa’s plan was to empower local staff to do her role. She never wanted to be the lead, but rather, be a support for Khmer physiotherapists and social workers.  Srey Ny and Lisa worked closely to develop a documentation system. They created assessment and care plans that were natural for everyone to walk through. Together they also developed a triage for kids and families, and how to address the needs of each.

Initially, Srey Ny was the ABLE Staff Physiotherapist and Lisa the ABLE Program Manager. Fast forward five years, Srey Ny is the Program Manager and Lisa is the Physical Therapy Technical Advisor.

Because It Is Personal

Srey Ny said, “Not only in my work, but in my personal life she is there for me and helps me a lot. She gives good advice. When Lisa learns something new, she always teaches me.”

Lisa, Courtney, and Srey Ny with a custom walker for an ABLE child.

As many of the families live in a province more than two hours away from Phnom Penh, Srey Ny and Lisa knew they would need  to hire someone living in the province who would be able to follow up with clients on a regular basis. Sovann was a perfect fit to their team. A couple of years later Thavy joined their ranks as well. Lisa and Srey Ny worked together to train and mentor the ABLE provincial staff. Again, Lisa looked to Srey Ny to help develop training that would be natural for the local staff.

The two have worked together for over five years. In the beginning, they spent three to four days at a time in the villages. Therefore, it gave them time to get to know one another on a personal level. They have shared many highs and lows over the years. Lisa teared up as she explained how much they have grieved together. The ABLE program has had four children die due to health complications.

Struggle and Victory

Just last month, a bright and happy 12-year-old boy in the program died unexpectedly in his sleep. Srey Ny choked back tears as she spoke of him. “He was so happy. We had just given him leg braces and a custom-made walker.”

Srey Ny remembered his joy as he realized he was going to learn to walk. Lisa had returned to the US to be with her dying father. She was devastated when she got the news.

Srey Ny said, “She [Lisa] is amazing. She left everything; her family, her friends. It’s so hard for her to live far from home. I can tell she cares about Cambodia through her sacrifice. I hope Lisa is here for a long time.”

While they share struggles, they also share joy. Lisa said, “We also rejoice together when we see children make progress. We see families realize a child is capable of more than they thought possible. We get to see families engage in more positive interactions with their children.” She explained that many families are not aware of their child’s capabilities or understanding of what is going on around them. In the midst of the work, they’ll see the light in their [families] eyes come alive as they realize the child understands what they are saying or doing. Suddenly, there is hope where families thought they had none.

Despite the highs and lows, there always seems to be a lot of laughter. They love traveling to the province together to work and meet with families. Lisa said Srey Ny is a very thoughtful person. She gets Lisa little gifts, remembering her favorite fruits or treats. Srey Ny knows Lisa well and always thinks of the little things.

New Experience, New Friendship

Recently, Srey Ny and Lisa flew to Siem Reap for meetings. It was Srey Ny’s first time in a plane. As a five-year celebration of being with CIF, Lisa treated Srey Ny to the Phare Circus. Lisa said, “It was a joy to share her first plane ride, as well as, a phenomenal Cambodian experience at the circus; a source of pride for Khmer.”

Lisa talked about how proud she was of Srey Ny on a work and personal level. “She’s really grown in her ability and confidence as a leader. She’s a strong advocate and now a force to contend with when it comes to children with disabilities.”   

As Lisa and Srey Ny’s work develops, so does their friendship. Courtney, an occupational therapist from America, joined their team over a year ago. Both say she’s a natural fit to the ABLE Program and their little community. CIF does a lot to ensure they are part of God’s plan to set the lonely into families. Turns out, even our staff find friendship and family within CIF.  

Children in Families ABLE Technical advisors are volunteers with specific medical training
Courtney and Srey Ny


Friendship: A Passion for Children With Disabilities