Lessons learned from working with children with disabilities

Working with children with disabilities can be challenging for volunteers, particularly if this is part of your very first social work experience. Read some useful tips for working with children, which might help you in your next volunteering experience!

Here are some lessons learned from Lukas Verfürden at the Key Quang Pagoda. Do you have a helpful tip for working with children with disabilities? Spill the beans!

Ky Quang Pagoda in the north of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is a Buddhist temple which includes an orphanage for mentally and physically disabled children. These orphans suffer from a variety of disabilities which make an independent life impossible and are therefore taken care of by Monks and nurses working at the pagoda.

My daily routine

Since I had already worked with disabled people for nine month during my social service in Germany, for me it made sense to join this program. After an introduction by the helpful staff of Volunteers for Peace Vietnam, I could start my work in the pagoda and here is what an “ordinary” was like:

After a one hour bus ride through the dense HCMC rush hour, my fellow volunteers and I arrived at Ky Quang Pagoda around 9 am to start the day with the children. While the nurses started preparing the first meal of the day, we played with the little ones and kept them entertained.

Playing could include classic activities like pushing them on a little car through the room, puzzling, or playing with a ball. Most of the time, however, they had their very own idea of playing.

For example, one boy, who had very poor sight, loved to guide you to his favorite places and climb up on you to check out the pictures on the wall or other objects from close proximity. Another girl would just take your hand and constantly give you high-fives, which is fun for a while but starts hurting soon. On the picture you can see me trying to manage both at the same time which definitely did not always work as well as it seems. At about 10.30 am it was time for the children to get something to eat. While most of them can eat by themselves, some need to be fed.

Once you figure out a good technique to do so (which can vary from child to child) you may mostly manage it without getting food on your shirt.

They got tired after playing so we put them to bed and they could have their well deserved midday nap. For us volunteers this was the time to have lunch and lie down for a nap ourselves.

In the afternoon some of the children got physiotherapy, which gave us time to take the others out for a walk or push them around in their wheelchair, so they could get some exercise or fresh air.

Afterwards we started playing with the children again until it was time for dinner and brought them back to their rooms after that. At the end of every day, mostly around 5 pm, we always felt exhausted from the day, but were already looking forward to seeing them again the next morning.

Some lessons I have learned 

A rookie mistake you will only make once is to take out more than one child at a time.

A child in each hand pulling in different directions, both with a very strong will to go wherever they desire, can make a short walk very time consuming.

Even though it was only a short term volunteer job and the days could be very chaotic, for me it was an amazing experience, because I learned a lot spending time with these kids.

For me it is important, that they have a safe home and do not depend on volunteers taking care of them. What we did is simply support the local nurses and take stress away from them, entertain the children, try to make them smile or care for them when they cry and help them get to be outside for a little while every day.

Having worked with disabled people before definitely helped me to get in touch with the children from the first day. From a fellow volunteer who did not feel confortable around them and changed programs in the end, I realized that this is not a given.

I encourage everyone who is interested to start working with people with disabilities, because it really is enriching.

Nevertheless, I think if you feel insecure about interacting with them, you should try to find out and acquire experience rather in your local community than in a project abroad.

Do you have any other helpful tip or advice for working with children with disabilities? Please share it with us!

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