In the field of “working with people,” one needs to understand where one’s strengths and weaknesses lie, and with what populations one is capable of working with (whether that be a matter of heart, skill, knowledge, accessibility, etc.). For me, I knew early on that one of the populations that I was undoubtedly not called to work with was people with physical disabilities. Fortunately, while my focus is on other social issues, there are people like Chris and Lydia Yeung who spend many of their days with kids with cerebral palsy.
Chris and Lydia are the founders of Silver Lining Foundation (note: website is in Chinese), an organization dedicated to improving the welfare of marginalized children in the Guang Xi region of China. Their work spans a broad range but succinctly they work with abandoned children, orphaned children, and children with disabilities.
I had the opportunity to shadow them during the past few days, with the first day focused on their program to support kids with CP and their families.
While cerebral palsy is a widely advocated and supported issue here in the United States, here in China there is a much greater lack of awareness and compassion towards children with CP and their families. Having a child with disabilities in general is something that is very “shameful” here, and between the social pressure and the economic hardship of raising a child with disabilities, many parents end up abandoning their children.
Teary-eyed, Chris told us the following the story (note: this is a rough version of it as my Cantonese is shaky and I was running on little sleep):
I was at a “welfare center” — that’s what orphanages are called here — and a kid with CP was found and brought in. A very severe case. He was about 6 or 7 years old and clearly had not had any OT or PT work done in those years so his muscles were completely limp. He was brought in and literally, all he could do was lay on the ground, almost like a piece of string. And he knew what had happened; he understood that his parents decided to leave him. He just laid there and cried and cried and cried. It was really heartbreaking to see a child feel so abandoned. He cried so much and was in such turmoil that he developed a high fever and became very sick.
We brought him into the hospital to get help and I told the workers at the welfare center that perhaps we can help him heal, then he can go to school, and then go on to college in America — he can lead a life like other children. The worker told me, “If he can learn to pick up a spoon and feed himself, that is already very progressive.”
I said, “Fine, then let’s just love him at least. He has no one — we need to show him as much love and care as possible.” And so I told a worker there that he seemed to like to play with to put extra effort into caring for him. The kid recovered from his fever and stayed at the center where they showed him love.
But sometime later, on Christmas Day, I received a call that the boy had passed away. My wife and I mourned and I remember just wondering, “What could I have done? What can I do?” It seems almost hopeless — this child died and his parents didn’t even know. How sad of a story.
I then thought that 6 years is a substantial amount of time. It’s not that these parents didn’t care, right? They tried for 6 or 7 years to care for him but it must be that they couldn’t do it anymore — emotionally or financially or socially. And I began to think that if there was a better support system for the parents who have kids with CP then perhaps the outcome will be better. We can reduce the number of families separated and the number of kids abandoned in China.
And so Chris and Lydia began focusing much of their efforts not just on the children themselves but creating a system and an environment in which parents can be encouraged and supported on multiple levels.
Chris took us to a rehabilitation center (loosely translated as Guang Xi Rehabilitation and Research Center for People With Disabilities) that works with various disabilities from hearing impairment to autism to CP. Silver Lining sponsors about 14 kids in the CP program, which requires parents to attend the day center with their child in order to learn and find support.
A professional occupational therapist from Hong Kong (in the yellow shirt), brought in by Silver Lining, taught the parents and the workers at the center (in the blue shirts) some exercises and ways to encourage and help the kids strengthen their muscles.
We spent the entire morning at the center watching the physical needs addressed through individual evaluations. The children were able to interact with one another also, parents with one another, and everyone learned strengthening methods specific to the child.
The kid photographed above had more muscle control than most children. His speech was very clear, which he took full advantage of as he kept talking and joking and laughing. I’ll write more about him in another post probably.
The kid photographed below had a funny personality too. He was the quietest and most reserved child but as soon as he saw my camera, he tried with much diligence to pose and to hold the pose for several pictures. His CP case is much worse; his leg muscles are completely weakened to the point that he is unable to stand, and as you can see in his photos, his finger muscles are very weak also. He tried to do the typical “V” fob pose, and upon realizing he was only holding up one finger still, cracked up and tried again. Despite being “behind” the other children at the center, he was still a very joyful and resilient child.
Our afternoon was spent making house visits to check in with the parents, but I’ll save that for another post. I’ll also highlight the other programs of Silver Lining as I continue my trip.