Pierre, Roman and Soloth pull up in a van they have engaged to take us out to the village of Smatch and a neighboring village for both handicap assessment of CP children there and to see the work being done by CFI on the mosquito net factory.  Hasan and Lauren are already comfortable in their seats and Hasan, God love him, has brought bags of freshly baked chocolate croissants for the 2 hour drive.  Cher, Lina and I pile in and we have exactly 45 minutes of smooth sailing before we leave the main highway and being the rest of the journey on the barely there roads out into the villages.  The van is rocking and rolling like a carnival ride – the kind where you are sure the ride is going to fly apart at any given moment.  Cher has wisely planned ahead and is wearing a patch for motion sickness.  Hasan and Lina are feeling the effects and both are concentrating very hard on not throwing up.  Lina and I smash into each other so often that we give up our continual apologies to each other.  On the way to the first village – which shall remain nameless due to my inability to speak or spell the name, Saloth gives us the run down.  We will meet with a family there with 7 children, 4 of whom have CP.  We are planning on doing an evaluation on each child and speaking with the family about their experiences in an effect to better understand the role Safe Haven can play for these children.  HIB – Handicap International Belgium, has been working outreach with this family and many like theirs in these remote villages.  Unfortunately, in 2011 HIB lease will be up and they will cease operations.  We want to help fill the huge gap that will follow in any way we can.

The family welcomes us into their hut and Cher is shocked to see a Stander – a piece of equipment that assists CP children with standing.  It is made of local materials and has a simpler design than ones in the United States. It is also just as effective and frankly, a fraction of the cost at $100 compared to thousands in the USA.  We discover HIB manufactures them here in Cambodia and file that helpful bit of information away.  Cher and I sit on the floor of the hut while the rest of our group quietly observes.  Cher begins her assessment starting youngest (at age 5) to oldest (at age 20).  All of the children are vastly smaller than they should be and we are actually shocked to learn their real ages.  The five year old, whom Cher keeps referring to as “she” despite the fact he is naked from the waist down looks so young we kept referring to him as the baby.  Cher defends her gender identification abilities by pointing out he is wearing a yellow dress and they have put hair clips in his hair.  I point out the penis and think I have the stronger case.

Cher and I spoke with the family about their history and then Cher did full exams of the kids while I took detailed notes. All four of these kids will eventually be students at Safe Haven and they are part of our preliminary study to help us understand the range of issues we will be facing. The CP in this family ranged from mild to very severe. The youngest at 5 was the mildest case. The 10-year-old girl could not walk but had good use of her upper body and head.  The 16 year old boy who was the size of a 7 year old was the worst, mostly because he clearly also showed signs of autism. Their 20-year-old boy, SO tiny. His lower body completely deformed from a life of sitting in a twisted position not being able to move his lower body. His spine and back have followed suit. NONE of the children are verbal and could articulate any words, though the 16 year old had developed basic set of grunts his parents understood to mean different things. Most impressive was the 20 year old who count do basic math and completely understand verbal language, as well as draw a circle with his deformed hands suggesting excellent motor control. And he learned all this on his own twisted up in his body in a hut in a poverty stricken village. Imagine his potential with a full time care facility with therapy and a chance for actual education! I left feeling very encouraged about the positive impact the school can have.

We headed next for Smatch but took a needed break for a drink and some lunch at a roadside café.  Well, Solath ate lunch.  The rest of us looked around and declared we were not really that hungry and ordered just sodas in cans.  Which we cleaned with wipes from Cher’s bag of disinfection.  We all had to sit outside because the Prime Minster was coming and they have set up the entire interior for his party.  They obviously don’t get many white westerns because our waitress was fascinated with Cher and myself.  First she got right up in Cher’s personal space behind her chair and kept touching her French braids with a look of astonishment.  Then she came over to me and sat down.  I knew she wasn’t fascinated with my hair, which was in a ponytail and a sad looking one at that.  She plucked my sunglasses from my shirt and then tried them on.  I took her picture and show it to her and she went away happy.

A short time later we were back in the van and en route to Smatch.  Lina makes the relieved observation that this road was not as bad as the previous village road and Pierre grins at her and says, “We haven’t turned left yet.”  She is not as amused with this piece of news as the rest of us.

We arrive in one piece, though Lina feels as if she been shaken and stirred, and head directly for the village chef’s house.  There are introductions all around and we speak with him about the education system in the village and the number of disabled living there.  Many adults are land mine victims and while they do have a number of handicap adults and children, all of them are fairly self-sufficient.  They also have a two-room schoolhouse, which serves as grades 1 and 2 for the 200 children in Smatch.  The kids just keep taking grades 1 and 2 over and over because they do not have the space and resources to go beyond that.  There is a full primary school over 3 miles away and only the stronger and largest children can walk that distance.  Child size bikes would solve the problem, but they are very expensive and not that plentiful.  As it turns out, many bikes are donated but all of them adult size and these very tiny Cambodia children can’t use them.  We visit the local vet’s family to see his disabled son.  What we were told was possible spinal deformity (I was already scheming in my head how to get my friend, Dr. Matt Bernstein, who did Lyda’s spinal surgery involved) turned out to be a badly set broken hip resulting in one leg now being shorter than the other.  Handily, my little sister, who also has one leg shorter than the other and wears an AFO and special shoes, quickly does an in field examine, takes rough measurements of his feet and is already on the case to get him special shoes with lifts so he can walk evenly.  A complicated fix just became an easy fix – something that doesn’t happen very often here.

The last stop on our visit is the well that supplies water to the village.  It is all-purpose for both drinking and bathing.  The well amounts to nothing more than a deep hole in the ground and it goes dry for 3-4 months out of the year.  It is clearer than expected, but heavily clouded with rust and other hard metals.  E Coli is present.  Every day, people come out to the well and pull up buckets to drink and wash.  As the chief hauls up a bucket to show us, several children with make shift yokes approach ready to gather the families supply for the day.  It is blazingly hot and we all have cold bottles of water waiting for us in the van.  I look at what these kids will be drinking from and feel a sense of dismay.  They are so thankful for this well and consider themselves fortunate.  When it dries up for months at a time – that is when they really struggle.  They cannot comprehend a world in which they simply walk into a kitchen, turn on a tap and watch clear water spurt forth cold into a glass.  It is something to remember every time you raise a glass to your lips.

– Heather E. Connell

Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.

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