As Children in Families (CIF) grows we hope to never lose focus on what really matters – each individual. Recently one of our Kinship and ABLE program families offered to give our readers a glimpse into their life. We are excited to share Rithy’s* (name changed) story as a snapshot of how there really can be hope for children with disabilities in Cambodia.
When you first meet Rithy* you notice bright, expressive, big dark eyes that follow your every move. When he cannot speak, his eyes communicate for him. The minute he saw Savorn, one of our Community Rehabilitation Team Member, who weekly spends time at his home, his eyes lit up. He also wears a grin that makes you want to beam a smile right back at him.
A Difficult Beginning
Ten-year-old Rithy experienced a rough start to life, as he battled meningitis and cerebral palsy. When his parents separated early on, they left him to the care of his great-grandmother and extended family.
With courage she loved him, caring to the best of her ability, but a lack of understanding of children with disabilities kept her feeling hopeless about his future. As she ages, this only becomes more difficult.
Rithy was part of CIF’s Kinship Care program from early on, enabling his great-grandmother, grandmother, and aunt to meet his basic needs.
Disability in Cambodia
To better understand Rithy’s situation, you need a glimpse of the complexity of caring for children with disabilities in a developing world context.
In communities with limited education, restricted access to medical care, and in conditions of severe poverty, exposure to and understanding of disability is minimal. Even when a family gains some awareness of the issue, their resources and time are limited as well. Working to eat comes first.
This is the reality Rithy lived in for the first six or seven years of his life. His basic requirements were met. Yet people need so much more than food and shelter to thrive.
The depth of his personality lay hidden, as he was physically unable to express himself.
The family conveyed how difficult it can be caring for children with disabilities. The whole family can never travel together because he needs to be watched around the clock. Rithy struggles to sleep due to stiffness and pain, and his lack of communication makes it difficult for them to fully understand and meet his needs.
Enter the ABLE Program
When the ABLE program began in 2013, it marked a significant turning point for this sweet boy. With a knowledgeable staff and physical therapists on the scene, his family was empowered to work daily with him.
As they learned different techniques, they began to see his personality emerge, his mind awaken, and his body strengthen physically. Each day brings him closer to more independence. He can now grip items, holding food and eating on his own.
When asked what his favorite foods were, his grandmother laughed. “Everything!” She smiled, indicating he possess a healthy appetite.
Out of context, this may seem like small steps, but it is a huge victory for Rithy and his family. He works hard each day at his tasks.
In the heat of the day, the family spends their time on raised platforms in the shade under their house. This is where Rithy passes a lot of his time. From here, he observes the world around him.
Now that he is able to roll over on his own and grip toys, he loves to build with blocks, getting his cousins involved. It is incredible to see the two young girls gently care for and play with him.
Neighbors even came over to offer encouragement to the boy as he displayed his rolling skills to our physical therapist. A huge grin spread across his face when he accomplished his goal; his eyes met mine as we clapped and cheered. Those eyes told me of the strength in his beautiful little soul.
The current challenge is getting Rithy to sit up on his own. Due to lack of head control and upper body muscle, a common trait with cerebral palsy, this is a time consuming practice where he gently and slowly raises himself with assistance.
Veterans International Cambodia also helped improve his mobility with a special wheelchair. Now he can be pushed around the area and get out of the home without needing to be carried.
Hope for Children with Disabilities
While the ABLE program helps Rithy grow in strength and skill, one of its greatest accomplishments was expressed by his Aunt. “We have hope. Now we know how to care for him. Now we know how important he is and realize how much he is capable of.”
There lies one of the greatest gifts given in life. Hope for children with disabilities.
No longer seen as a mind trapped deep inside a frail body, his personality shines through making it impossible to not fall in love. As he grows and learns, his family is recognizing more and more what he truly can accomplish. They see a future of progress and greater independence. They see a boy worth fighting for each day.
His Aunt continued to express how far he has come. His flexibility has increased with his daily tasks, making him feel better and happier.
Rithy is still mostly non-verbal. However, when we were present, he successfully attempted a few words, calling out his cousin’s name. His grandmother told us he likes to sing along with the radio when it is on. His motor skills may make singing difficult, but it doesn’t stop this happy boy from trying. It certainly does not stop him from smiling all day.
A Holistic Approach
Not only has the understanding of Rithy’s disabilities given hope, the CIF staff noted how over time, the all-around well-being of the family improved. This is a result of our goal to meet holistic needs.
CIF provided the family with a water filter since well water can cause illness without filtration. The overall cleanliness and nutrition in the home also improved. Basic knowledge about food and hygiene make a vast difference in health.
Looking to the Future for Children with Disabilites
While the team worked with the family and Rithy, I asked Lisa, the ABLE technical advisor, about his future. She said, “While Rithy’s motor impairment is quite significant, it’s difficult to know how much of it is due to brain damage and how much is due to receiving help so late. I am unsure how much he will be able to accomplish, but his response to the therapy and the improvement he’s made, make me hopeful he will continue to improve his quality of life and his ability to engage with others in his community.”
One thing that is clear is Rithy’s smile could light up a room. His joy for life spreads, reminding his family and community of each individual’s great value. We, the CIF Staff, are certainly smitten with him. Rithy, you bring hope to families caring for children with disabilities everywhere!