Vietnamese sisters improve care for disabled children

A sister teaches children having difficulty studying at the Center for Children with Physical Disabilities in central Vietnam. (GSR photo / Peter Nguyen)

Hue, Vietnam — Lovers of the Holy Cross Sr. Catherine Ho Thi Hien is no longer worried about Nguyen Thanh Phuong, an 8-year-old boy who suffers from a mental disorder and lives at the Home of Hope, known as the Mai Am Hy Vong, in Hue.

Hien, vice head of the home, tries to listen to and spend time playing with the boy. In the past, Phuong did what he wanted unconsciously, walking around the home and disobeying his teachers. He played alone with bicycles while other children were taking noontime naps.

"I figured out his problems: He likes amusing himself and feels pressured to take a nap at a scheduled time," Hien says. "I sympathize with him and understand him more than I used to."

"We are happy that now he obeys me. He has stopped talking back to me and sits at the table with other children and feeds himself," she says.

The home accommodates 55 children aged 5-17, including Phuong. They live with a variety of conditions, including hearing and visual impairments, intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, paralysis of limbs, malformation, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. Another 15 orphans also live at the home, which is staffed by 10 nuns and four laywomen.

Hien, who has a bachelor's degree in sociology, says staff members started using new ways of offering care to children like Phuong after attending two workshops last September in Hue. The workshops focused on children's rights and on caring for children suffering physical disabilities and mental illnesses.

About 45 Catholic and Buddhist nuns and volunteers were present at the courses conducted by Community Capacity Development, a local non-governmental organization that works with Catholics and Buddhists to protect community health and to train volunteers and lecturers in how to help people affected by climate change.

Hien admits that staff members lack professional skills necessary to care for these children, so she appreciated the workshops that offered these skills. She is especially grateful for learning about ways to deal with difficult behaviors, like climbing out of windows and onto tables. The training has helped them understand children who show a lack of awareness of their wrongdoings or ignore advice from teachers. The staff also welcomed help with dealing with suicide attempts by the children, Hien says.

"We are adopting useful skills to help those special children grow up healthily. We spend more time communicating to them, have them come out into the sunlight during the day, and create opportunities for them to communicate with one another more frequently," the nun says.

Mai Thuc Minh, a 16-year-old orphan, suffers paralysis of limbs and speech impairment. He has difficulty swallowing food and drink, too, and has been at the home for 14 years.

Sr. Catherine Ho Thi Hien, left, and a young woman look after Mai Thuc Minh, a 16-year-old who has paralysis of limbs, speech impairment and difficulty swallowing food and drink. (GSR photo / Peter Nguyen)

Hien says, "Minh smiles happily when he is moved out from his room and sees trees, flowers and people around." In the past he cried loudly and was rarely seen smiling.

Daughters of Mary Immaculate Sr. Anne Phan Thi Thanh Huyen, who teaches at the Center for Children with Physical Disabilities based in Phu Loc District, Thua Thien Hue Province, spoke at the workshops. She told how she used to lose her temper with a pesky boy who was 10 years old but less than one meter (39 inches) in height. The boy would insist on constantly watching TV, demanding more food and throwing himself on the floor, crying loudly, after she turned it off.

"Now I know that he had psychological problems and wanted to react against me," Huyen says, adding that her treatment of him at the time made him feel utterly desolate.

She says children with physical disabilities tend to have inferiority complexes about their situation. "I try to understand them well and help them overcome a complex about their bodies so that they can enjoy life and live independently," she says.

Dr. Phan Thi Kim Ngan, head of the Center for Community Capacity Development based in Hue, said the workshops aimed to "help volunteers penetrate those children's behaviors and gestures so that they can sympathize, love and integrate them into communities."

Dr. Tran Nhu Hong from Hue University of Medicine and Pharmacy said most of these childhood disabilities are caused by the effects of heredity, a polluted environment, parental smoking or drug use, and some diseases such as encephalitis and rubella.

Hien gave the example of a man who works for a local cement plant and his wife who collects used items for a living. They have three children with speech impairments and mental disorders.

Many children are from poor families, who sometimes just leave their children at the gate of the convent out of desperation. Many single mothers and women who have been raped have also sent their disabled children to the home. 

In addition, the nuns bring home abandoned children they find living at garbage dumps.

Hien suspects that parents of children with disabilities in Vietnam nurse a complex about their them and see them as a burden.

Lovers of the Holy Cross sisters in Hue help children with therapy at their Home of Hope facility in central Vietnam. (photo /Peter Nguyen)

In addition to taking workshops, Catholics and Buddhists also meet with each other more regularly to share their experiences in caring for disabled children and working with those having difficulty studying at schools with one another. Both groups provide education on prevention of childhood disabilities for local people. 

Buddhists run a center for 150 children with physical disabilities while Catholic nuns serve 175 children at three centers in the province. Most of the children are looked after without charge.

[Joachim Pham is a correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Vietnam.]