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Happy feet and better days

Children at Komar Pikar Foundation practise simple activities to help with their daily lives.

A life-altering story is unravelling in rural Kampot. Meet the exceptional children whose potential is just being discovered, the organisation supporting them to care for themselves, and the Australian volunteers who have arrived to lend a hand.

Kob Vy is walking. Step by determined step, small fingers curled tightly around his walking frame. A giant smile on happy feet.

He's surrounded by other children: picking up leaves in the yard, yelling out answers to maths problems, eating fruit and rice wrapped in palm leaves, washing their dishes under the tap.

These simple activities are still new to Cambodia's forgotten children, and nearly miraculous to their parents. A few years ago, many of these children never left their homes or spent their days confined to sheds or pig pens, regarded as a karmic curse on their families and a burden to their community.

"Most of these families are very poor and don't know how to support their children with disabilities," says Kong Vichetra, Executive Director of the Komar Pikar Foundation. "We saw the big gap in services for these families, so we started Komar Pikar Foundation in 2007 to help these children become independent and self-reliant."

Komar Pikar aims to demonstrate how targeted, supportive interventions can radically change the lives of children with moderate to severe disabilities. With support from AusAID and Australian Red Cross, the organisation runs three day centres and provides disability awareness, parent support, counselling and home-based care programs in Kampot Province and Phnom Penh.

Komar Pikar's future depends on demonstrating the impact of its work, showing that it is underpinned by strategic planning and clear processes that can be replicated across the country. For this, they have sought the support of two Australian Volunteers for International Development. Occupational therapist Emma Glenn is working closely with Komar Pikar Foundation staff to standardise a process for how children are assessed at the day centres, and how programs are designed to suit their needs. Capacity development officer Kelly Dawe is working on a broader plan for human resources practices. Together they are supporting the foundation to become a centre of excellence for young people with moderate to severe disabilities.

"In Cambodia we are lacking in expertise like occupational therapy," Vichetra says. "In countries like Australia or the US, there is expertise and our staff can learn from it. So the volunteers are very important for our organisation as well as for Cambodia."

Because of the intense stigma surrounding disability, the number of children with cerebral palsy, autism and intellectual disabilities is near-impossible to calculate. Komar Pikar staff members partner with local communes to seek out these children and their families, who are often living in abject poverty.

Through Komar Pikar self-help groups, parents of children with disabilities can share their hopes and fears and experiences with each other, learn how to help their children develop self-care and social skills and, most importantly, access small loans to start small businesses.

True to their name, self-help groups are entirely managed by parents. "The members of the group need to decide how much money they need to do the business," Vichetra explains. "So they start by planning together in the group. And we, Komar Pikar Foundation, only support them and give them ideas on how the money can be used to support the group as well as their households."

The stories are genuinely life-altering. A cake-making business enables a single mother to hold on to her home and land. A small chicken farm allows a father to buy medicine for his daughter. The sale of a 100-kilogram pig brings a family more money than they have ever seen at one time.

The changes in their children are no less incredible. "Before, my daughter could not even go to the toilet independently," says proud father Cheav Heng. "Now she can go to the toilet and she can walk using support materials. At night, she can go to her bed and can use a mosquito net and mat by herself. She can eat independently; after eating, she can collect all the dishes and clean them."

Emma, who visited the Kampot day centre two years ago as an occupational therapy student, was inspired to return as an AVID volunteer when she completed her qualifications. "It's amazing just to see the progress that's been made here and the difference to the children," she says.

Vichetra is determined to continue. "There are more thousands of children with disabilities still waiting for support. When Komar Pikar Foundation has more expertise, we can transfer this knowledge to the parents and other communities, as well as our partners and stakeholders, so we have more resources to support children with disabilities together."

They'll do it, too, just the way Kob Vy does - slowly and determinedly, smiling with every step achieved.

Photo: Australian Red Cross/Tiet Ho