What?I volunteered at an orphanage for children with developmental disabilities for two weeks in Vietnam during the summer of 2015. I commuted to Thien Phuoc, the orphanage, each morning on the back of my uncle’s two-wheeled motorbike and stayed there for 7-10 hours each day, becoming immersed in the children’s daily activities. Some days I assisted in the children’s physical therapy and some days I was in charge of it. I would strap the children I was in charge of onto an exercise bike, one at a time, to help them exercise their legs and work on their range of motion. I would also strap some of the children onto standing frames to help them develop their ability to walk and maintain an upright posture. Throughout the morning physical therapy I would feed the children I was working with water or lemonade and physically help them to use the restroom whenever they needed to. Some mornings I worked on physical therapy with the younger children instead and massaged their muscles with a vibrating therapy machine since these children were stationary and horizontal most of the time. When lunch time came each day, I spoon-fed some of the younger children their porridge and flan and then soothed them until they fell asleep. While they slept I helped the nuns clean up and wash the cloths that were used to help clean after the children as we were feeding them, and after the children’s nap, I changed the diapers of the younger children and fed them milk. After caring for the younger children, I played with them or went to play with the relatively older children. I played with them and developed relationships with them and laughed with them. After playtime, I helped to spoon-feed the younger children in the early evening during the first week and the relatively older children during the second week. And after feeding the children porridge or rice and then water, I played with the children even more until the evening; throughout the late afternoon and evening I would continue to help the children use the restroom when they needed to and also help the nuns bathe the children by drying the children and dressing them. After the sun has set, my uncle would come to pick me up and drive me back home.
So What?My favorite part about my STEP experience was getting to know the children and returning to see their faces each morning. My time at Thien Phuoc was more incredible than words can ever describe. Prior to my experience I believed that I was naturally bad at dealing with children and even more awkward at dealing with disabled people—which was a reason why I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and participate in this experience. However, as I became more immersed in my role at the orphanage and more engaged in the children’s daily lives, I became to wonder why I had ever doubted myself so much. I naturally enjoyed spending time with the children, whether that meant helping them mold shapes with clay or wiping their butts clean. I valued them because I saw that they were capable of so many great things, even if they were limited and confined to the orphanage. They had warmth within them that was contagious and gave me more energy. They were resilient and powerful, even when they were scolded by the nuns for accidentally peeing in their pants or when they didn’t want to participate in the physical therapy because it felt too hard that day. Their capacity to love and to have fun remain unchanged by their disabilities, and I saw something so incredible in that that I felt so grateful to be volunteering where I was, so happy to be able to help them, so blessed to be a part of their universe, even if only for a little bit. I felt like I was always feeling thankful for the children and the nuns instead of the other way around. I’ve realized that people truly are stronger than they look, even when they are in the form of ‘broken’ or ‘incomplete,’ young children. They aren’t helpless; they don’t need help. What they need is love. It was so amazing for me to be able to experience this love beyond borders.
Now What?Because of STEP, I was able to learn about cultural differences in perspectives on disability and discover the importance of psychological support over physical support in therapy. On an academic level, my experience abroad has given me a clearer direction and vision in terms of what I want to do as a career. More specifically, I want to steer away from medicine and set my focus on a career that impacts children and childhood development in some kind of way. I want to contribute to changing and bettering the lives of the younger generations, something I had generally avoided before without my realizing it.On a more personal level, I was able to rediscover self-efficacy in working with children, which drives me in my pursuit for a career with children. I was also able to redefine disability and physical therapy, explore my cultural identity as a Vietnamese-American, and solidify an even more optimistic mentality. I have found a new comfort zone in working with disability and people who are disabled, a huge step from where I had been prior to my experience. Because of STEP, I have gained a new and impactful understanding of what it means to be Vietnamese and what it means to be Vietnamese-American. Family to me has also taken on a new meaning; familial love and family ties have taken on a deeper meaning and I am now always working harder to develop better relationships with my family members and mend broken relationships. Additionally experiencing the contrasting lifestyle of Vietnam has stimulated and amplified my curiosity and wonder as a cultural learner, adventurer, risk-taker, and traveler. I’ve encompassed amore stress-less-live-more attitude, which permeates to all other aspects of my life and since my return to the United States, I have been traveling more and generally experiencing even more new things (even if it means doing so in my own company).Because of STEP, I genuinely feel that I am living an overall happier life.