In May, Denisha Roberts took her second mission trip overseas with Brittany’s Hope, a Lancaster County nonprofit that serves families and orphaned children, primarily in Vietnam and Africa. During her travels on this trip, Denisha worked with a 12-year-old boy named Quan. As we do in our therapy work here at Schreiber, Denisha’s visit changed Quan’s life. We talked recently about her trip. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Denisha Kline, left, with Quan, one of the many children she worked with during her trip to Vietnam in May.
Dan Fink: We talked earlier when you were getting ready to leave on this mission trip. You’ve since gone. I just wanted to hear a little bit about how the trip went.
Denisha: The trip was amazing. We stopped at a couple different orphanages in Vietnam. We started in Ho Chi Minh City and traveled from there to two central locations in Vietnam and then to Hanoi in northern Vietnam.
At the one location, there were quite a few kids who had special needs. There was recently a capital campaign done through Brittany’s Hope to build an adaptive living quarters and get some therapy equipment for these kids. That was my favorite part of the trip because there were about six kids that had special needs, with significant motor special needs. We were able to educate the staff on how to use appropriate equipment for those kids. My favorite part of that piece of the trip was a young boy named Quan. He was about 12 years old. He was recently brought to the orphanage by his grandmother because she was no longer able to care for him. Prior to coming to the orphanage, he would spend his days when she would go to work lying on the floor in their small living area. He never had the ability to sit unless somebody was able to hold him.
I’m not sure where his parents were in this picture. His grandmother could no longer care for him and meet his needs, so she brought him to the orphanage hoping that he would receive some care there. We brought him to the adaptive living quarters, and through the help of a translator, we were able to talk to him. Sweet boy. Very quiet, soft spoken. Very serious young man. Had a lot of muscle contractures. Couldn’t sit up on his own, couldn’t really roll on his own.
Dan: Did he have a diagnosis?
Denisha: He was probably never seen medically. My pretty good best guess would be cerebral palsy. We asked him if he wanted to sit up; he said yes. He was very fearful about sitting, so we slowly brought him up into sitting on the mat table, and then we asked him if he wanted to sit in one of the adaptive wheelchairs that were donated. He said yes. So we transferred him to a wheelchair and really monitored him because he had not been sitting, just making sure that he was OK.
Dan: It can be unsettling for a kiddo who has been lying down most of his life to be in that upright position.
Denisha: Yes. Right. So once he was in the wheelchair, he had the biggest smile on his face. He was so excited to be sitting without somebody having to hold him. So I handed him a playground-sized ball and asked him if he could throw it to me. And he just looked down at his hands because his hands had never really been free to play because he had always been lying on the floor or being held. We helped him. He picked up his hands off the tray and held the ball and threw it. Then he realized he could do this. So he was playing ball a little bit with this big smile on his face. He got tired pretty quickly and went back to his room.
Later that evening, all the kids at the orphanage had a big celebration and did different skits that they had been practicing and songs and dances and games.
Dan: Just for you because you were visiting?
Denisha: Because we were visiting. We had a big buffet meal and a celebration with them. The children with special needs were not involved with this, for the most part. So I went into Quan’s room and asked if he wanted to come out and join the celebration. He said, yes, he did. We got the wheelchair, positioned him, went out. He had the best time. He was laughing, and talking with some of the other kids and the caregivers. He joined in, the kids would push his wheelchair around to the different locations. You could tell he was really enjoying himself. He got tired pretty quickly.
The caregivers took him back to his room after a few hours. I went in to check on him, and, with the help of one of the caregivers, who had a translation device on her cell phone, I was able to tell him I was really proud of him for trying new things. It can be a little scary to try new things, but his caregivers now know how to do some of the things we had done. And hopefully he will continue to work on sitting and using his hands more and doing some of the stretches we had given him to do. He smiled and said through the translator, today is the first day he was ever included in an activity. And it was the first time he was truly happy.
Quan was pretty articulate and very social and aware of what was going on around him and really craved the interaction with the other kids. And it was neat to be able to show the caregivers how it was so simple to include him in some of the activities.
Dan: Culturally and philosophically, the idea of including kids with special needs like Quan in group activities, they didn’t think about that?
Denisha: They didn’t think about it, plus they never had the means to be able to do it, unless you’re carrying some of these children.
Dan: So having a chair helps.
Denisha: Having a wheelchair makes a big difference. Otherwise, there would be no opportunity for him to be included. And for kids who are still living with families, there’s nobody who can stay home with them. There are no schools that have special equipment to accommodate the kids, or at least none that I’m aware of. It’s just much more difficult for these families. And medical care is hard for some of these families to afford.
Dan: Tell me a little bit more about some of the other things you did on the trip. You were there for how long?
Denisha: Almost three weeks. It was very hot, very humid. It was fun. We delivered some soccer equipment for some of the older children, mostly boys who enjoy playing soccer. We help the kids work in the gardens, plant coconut trees. We took two groups of children on field trips.
Dan: So these were not all special needs kids?
Denisha: No, not all special needs kids. We dedicated some houses to some families so that the mother could keep her children, because the mother didn’t have living arrangements for the children to stay. That was fun. We visited a large government-run orphanage and did some case studies with a physical therapist there and talked about some tips on working with children with autism, because they didn’t really have that bag of tricks or education to know how to help with those kids. At the large government-run orphanage, there were probably between 300-400 or more kids with pretty significant special needs. That was a little overwhelming, but you kind of just do what you can do to leave everything in a better position than when you got there.
Dan: What would you say you ended up taking away from the trip? Anything new that you learned?
Denisha: I learned a lot about the culture. It was just fun to work with the kids and give attention to some children who maybe don’t get a lot of attention because the caregivers are so busy with large groups of children. I think the best part was being able to share ideas and discuss therapy ideas with staff, and for them to be able to apply it for the children who were there. From that, we realized it was probably something we want to do frequently so I’m looking at getting some therapists to go back every year.
But the kids are amazing. They’re resilient. They’re willing to help each other out. They have amazing dreams. My sponsor daughter in Kenya wants to become an artist. My sponsor son wants to become either a lawyer or a police officer. These kids are going to college. And they are making these things happen.