Danish volunteers help disabled children in Thailand

The two Danish occupational therapists Caroline Skovgård and Maria Køster have chosen to work several months as volunteers for a foundation in the countryside of Thailand. Here they get to know a new culture and learn to work in an environment very different to what they are used to.

Caroline Skovgård (in front) and Maria Køster (in the back) did not know each other before they started working in Thailand. Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

It is six in the morning and a monk clothed in an orange garb rings a gong. The temperature is already 25 degrees Celsius. A small group of water buffaloes walk through the neighborhood and pass by a simple square house down a small road. The house belongs to a small Thai-Danish foundation, called Raindrop Foundation, that treats disabled children in the outer districts of Northeast Thailand.

In the house lives two Danish occupational therapists and two physiotherapists, who have volunteered to work for approximately four months for Raindrop Foundation. Two of them are 28-years-old Caroline Skovgård and 27-years-old Maria Køster, who recently graduated as occupational therapists. Through facebook they became aware of Raindrop Foundation’s voluntary programme, and in August they arrived with their suitcases in Thailand.

“I wanted to work and see the world, so this is a good combination,” says Caroline Skovgård.

With their white skin and brown hair, they stand out from the dark skinned and black-haired Thais in Sakon Nakhon in Northeast Thailand, where they work.

Despite a stunning scenery with rice fields and mountains, few tourists visit Sakon Nakhon. The area has not been granted a single page in Lonely Planet’s guidebook to Thailand and all civilian flights only go to the capital Bangkok.

The area lacks professional help to families with disabled children and this is how Caroline Skovgård, Maria Køster and the other volunteers at Raindrop Foundation can help. They drive out to their patients every day to give them therapy together with a local therapist named Chayanam Thana Khamdee or just Nit, as she is usually called.

Plastic bottles and smiles
After breakfast, Caroline Skovgård and Maria Køster start their work by driving out to a school, where their first patient is. He is a boy of eight, who has problems using his left side. Especially, he struggles to control his left arm and to stretch his fingers. To help him, the occupational therapists place three plastic bottles that used to contain coffee powder on a table. The boy has to grab hold of one of the bottles, walk along the table and put it on the other end of the table.

Maria Køster and Nit help the boy to get hold of the bottle. Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

The task is difficult for him. He drops the bottles several times before he manages to put it on the table.
In many ways, the treatments are different from what would have been done in Denmark. They have less tool at their disposal, so they use what they have, as Caroline Skovgård says. That is why old coffee bottles have to do.

In most cases, the alternative tools do the job and also teaches the occupational therapists to think in new solutions:
“In Denmark we would have had many different tools, but out here we have to use our fantasy more and find new ways into occupational therapy,” says Maria Køster.

Watch Caroline Skovgård explain how they trained with the boy in the video:

Caroline Skovgård and Maria Køster also lack the ability to talk with their patients. They only know a few words in Thai, so most of the communication is based on big smiles and showing what they want their patients to do.

When the boy manages to put a bottle on the table, Caroline Skovgård and Maria Køster give him an applause and smile. He proudly returns the smile.

When the communication fails, Nit helps them out and translate for them. It can be challenging not to be able to tell the patient what they want them to do, explains Maria Køster.

Many needs help
The eight-year-old boy gets one hour of therapy two times a month. They hope to make him able to do more thing by himself, since he is often home alone with his grandmother who is not able to help him all the time.

In general, there are too many disabled children who need help and too few therapists to help them. That makes it difficult to improve the children’s abilities:
”It is more about maintaining their current abilities than actually improving them, because we can’t visit them enough,” says Caroline Skovgård.

Caroline Skovgård blows soap bubbles to the boy, which he thinks is a much funnier task than moving bottles. Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

Often, the children are also in worse condition than they probably would have been in Denmark and that makes an impression on the Danish volunteers.

“But luckily there are also many children who are happy even though they are in difficult situations. To see the happiness in their eyes can make my day,” says Maria Køster.

That happiness seems to creep into the eyes of the eight-year-old boy as he gets to jump around trying to stretch his hand while chasing soap bubbles. When the treatment ends, he runs back to class and Maria Køster, Caroline Skovgård and Nit get back into the car and drive to the next patient.

Raindrop Foundation
The car stops on a dusty asphalt road next to the house where the second and last patient of the day lives. He is a young boy who has a spastic foot and hands that make him unable to sit up by himself. A blanket is put on the floor in front the rest of his family that watches the treatment without interfering.

Watch Caroline explain some of the exercises they did in the video:

Nit is the first one to put the boy on the lap. Her hair is tied back in a quick and practical bun and she smiles widely to the boy. She shows Maria Køster and Caroline Skovgård what exercises she usually do with him, before they do them by themselves.

Nit has been a part of Raindrop Foundation for five years. The foundation is established by Dr. Pensak Chagsuchinda Howitz, who is born in Sakon Nakhon in 1939. She married Danish Ambassador Frantz Bonaventura Howitz, and together with her husband she started a project that helped poor farmers in Sakon Nakhon. That project later turned into Raindrop Foundation and helping disabled children and their families became the core of the foundation.

Caroline Skovgård (left) and Nit (right) try to get the boy to catch the ball. Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

The foundation gets donations from the Danish support organization Friends of Raindrop Foundation, who also selects the Danish volunteers. Beside the volunteers, the foundation employs 6 persons and one of them is Nit.

In the daily life, Nit is a major help for the Danish volunteers, but she also learns from the Danes:
“We can share ideas about our work with each other. They are my teacher,” she adds with a smile.

Nit is not the only local who learns from Raindrop Foundation. As a new thing, the foundation wants to educate local Thais in basic physiotherapy, so more local people will be able to help disabled children. The foundation hopes the Danish volunteers in the future will be teachers for the locals instead of doing the treatment themselves. In that way, the locals will be able to continue the treatment when the volunteers leave.

Caroline Skovgård (left) and Maria Køster (right) help each other to make exercises with the patient. Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

Meeting with a new culture
After they finish their work, Caroline Skovgård and Maria Køster drive down the small gravel road that leads back to the house where they live. The house is not only occupied by Danish volunteers but also dogs from the neighborhood, who have decided to move in.

In the evenings, Maria Køster and Caroline Skovgård often go for a walk and the dogs will tack along whether or not they want them to. One evening, a dog they had nicknamed Henrik, after the late Danish prince consort, accidentally was hit by a car and died.

Their stay in Thailand includes both good and bad experiences and allows them to see a side of the many-faced country, that most foreigners do not.
”It’s nice to get a feeling of the authentic Thailand and not just the tourist parts,” says Maria Køster.

Sometimes the new culture can be challenging which is the case with the organization of their work. To the volunteers, the work can come across as inefficient as they are five practitioners, but only treat two or three children a day.

However, their work brings them close to vulnerable children and in their free time Nit gives them a chance to see even more of the Thai culture from inside.
She brings them to local funerals and birthdays, offers them to clean temples together with monks and they have even helped building a bathroom for one of their patient’s family.

“The Thais are very friendly and embraces us both as private persons and professionals,” says Caroline Skovgård.

Soon she and Maria Køster will go to bed underneath a mosquito net and be woken up by the monk’s gong or a group of water buffaloes deciding to stroll by on an unexpected visit.

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