Born with an intellectual disability as the youngest child of the family, Sayha needed his mother to take care of him even in his late teens.
His mother, Srey Mom, was torn between caring for him or having to leave him at home to earn an income.
“Unlike other children, my child was late in developing. He couldn’t walk until he was five years old. I had never seen anyone having such delayed development,” Srey Mom says.
She was despondent until one day she learned about the Komar Pikar Foundation’s Activity Training Centres, where children and young people with physical and intellectual disabilities are given the opportunity to learn and interact.
The Komar Pikar Foundation – the Foundation for Disabled Children – was founded by Helen Pitt in 2007 when the 86-year-old Australian teamed up with Cambodian colleagues to care for disabled children.
After operating now for more than a decade, she is now a patron of the organisation, which is run by local staff dedicated to helping children with intellectual disabilities in Cambodia.
Kong Vichetra, the executive director of the Komar Pikar Foundation, said the organisation was registered with the Ministry of Interior in 2008.
“Our main aim is to support children and young people with moderate and severe disabilities, whether physical or intellectual.
“We provide community services offering day-care centre for disabled children. To make sure that disabled children can attend, we share the burden with their parents. We make sure their parents are able to go to work or run small businesses to earn an income for their families,” Vichetra says.
Finding the centre was life changing for Srey Mom and Sayha. She says she never expected to see a classroom filled with children like her son.
“My relatives saw the other children at the centre and we went back to check on them. We were surprised to see children like my son patiently being taken care of by their teachers. I didn’t expect to see that, and I was more than grateful to be able to put my child in their professional care.
“I used to worry a lot, seeing my child unable to go out and play. I was very sad that at his age he couldn’t do things like other children and he was totally dependent on me,” Srey Mom says.
Having attended the centre for several months, Sayha can now communicate and is gradually learning to do basic things by himself.
“He has started to be able to handle his emotions. He listens, and he understands a lot more than he used to. He now greets visitors and isn’t scared of being surrounded by other people. I pray that he can keep learning and progressing and can do more things for himself,” Srey Mom says.
The organisation also focuses on the parents and guardians of disabled children and young people, understanding of the situation they face and actively working with them.
“We help build confidence for families who have disabled children as they are often left feeling desperate. We want to lessen their hardships and the feeling of hopelessness,” says Kong Vichetra, the co-founder and executive director of Komar Pikar Foundation.
The creation of a parents network is essential in this, he says.
“It is important to focus on encouraging relationships between the parents of the disabled children. A family can share stories, experience and knowledge with others. By getting together, they can give each other hope.
“While we provide them with information on how to take care their children at home, we also love to see parents talking with other parents. We want to build a strong nationwide network of parents with disabled children from different provinces and cities.
“Our aim is for them to be able to support their families. The network of parents with disabled children will give them a strong voice. Their problems should be addressed at the community level to the national level – even globally,” Vichetra says.
This is how the community-based self-help programme was created, beginning in July 2011 with the support of Australian Aid through the Australian Red Cross, Vichetra says.
“There are around 10 self-help groups. Four of them are located in Kampot province’s Chhouk district. We’ve worked in partnership with other organisations, like the Cambodia Special Olympics Federation in Phnom Penh, for example.
“Each group has a chief, deputy chief and secretary. The organisation trains each group on how to organise meetings, and they learn leadership skills and other knowledge. Then we’ll provide each group with $500. They will discuss within the group of how to best use the money, in what they should invest in to make income.
“Another success is that we’ve expanded our network to Thailand with the Asia-Pacific Development Centre on Disability, and with the Japan International Cooperation Agency [Jica]. We were able to organise meetings between parents from Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar in which to share knowledge and experiences,” Vichetra says.
To have come this far was not an easy journey. Staff who worked closely with the communities faced challenges when starting self-help groups. The distance between houses caused transport problems. The limited education of a lot of the parents also proved challenging. Not being used to speaking their minds, they were often reluctant to start discussions.
Having overcome the challenges, Bot Vimean, a project manager and physiotherapist, is keen to pass on his experiences.
“Working in partnership with all stakeholders enables our organisation to maximise the effectiveness of its work within a context of limited resources. Partnerships help reduce overlaps, addressing people’s needs by integrating them into other programmes, and promote the scaling-up of influence and action,” Vimean says of the importance of the self-help groups.
Nov You, deputy chief of one such group, is the intellectually disabled mother of two disabled daughters. She suffered after her husband left her, experiencing discrimination in the community.
“I used to be treated badly by the other villagers. They would not let their children play with my kids because we are all disabled, physically and intellectually. Now people do that less. Maybe this is a result of the awareness raised by the organisation that disability doesn’t mean ‘not normal’.
“I can see many changes happening in my life. I was able to pick up skills and support my family. I used to be very stressed, depressed and unable to think of anything positive in my life. Now having been with the organisation for some time, I can handle my feelings and think optimistically of a better life,” You says.
Kong Samrech, a self-help group chief, has a disabled grandson. He is happy to see his grandson progress, now being able to read magazines and newspapers. Samrech became involved in his group to improve the livelihoods of families like his.
“My role is to implement the policies we have agreed on. I plan the meetings, record their attendance and prepare study materials. As well as sharing knowledge and experiences, we also talk about our budget, and loans and interest rates to start up small enterprises like raising chickens or growing vegetables. We come up with plans for the future before we conclude the meetings,” Samrech says.
Komar Pikar Foundation is located at #43 Street 178, Khan Daun Penh, Phnom Penh. Tel: 023 21 04 47 and 012 84 34 66. More information can be found at komarpikar.org.