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Playing out a dream

By Phoebe Dey and Roland Lines

When Kelly McClain first set foot in the School for the Blind in Pattaya, Thailand, the stench of urine and feces overwhelmed him. Far from home and unaccustomed to such squalor, he sat against a wall trying to come to terms with his new surroundings. Within minutes, the children noticed his presence and began touching McClain to get a sense of the stranger among them. Amid the confusion, a four-year-old boy named Got carved a permanent place in McClain's heart.

"He just came into my lap, wrapped his legs around me and hugged me," McClain says of Got, who was born with skin covering the sockets where his eyes should be. "Immediately, I fell in love with him. Over the next six weeks, he peed on me many times, but I just cuddled with him and spent as much time as I could with him. He made the whole situation make sense."

McClain and three other students from the U of A's Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation spent seven weeks volunteering at the Pattaya Orphanage last summer. They were part of a Canadian group that also included two students from the University of Toronto and was led by U of A physical education professor Jane Vallentyne and Andy Anderson from the U of T's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

A Catholic Church mission started by Father Raymond Brennan in 1970, the Pattaya Orphanage cares for hundreds of children who are either orphaned, living on the street, or have visual, hearing, or physical impairments. They range in age from day-old babies to young adults in graduate school.

Only children under three have a good prospect for adoption, but Vallentyne says not to feel sorry for the others."They get a different kind of family," she says. "Lots of siblings, plus a nurse, a housemother, a social worker, teachers and a group of nuns."

The Canadian Students worked with several projects—"institutions of hope," as the orphanage calls them—including the School for the Deaf, the Vocational School for Handicapped Young Adults, and the Home for Street Kids, but they spent most of their time at the School for the Blind.

"I was so proud of them, because that's where they thought they were needed the most, even though it was definitely the most challenging," says Vallentyne. "Every day, I saw some type of growth in our students as well as the kids there."

A particularly moving experience for Colleen Mooney, '01 BPE, was teacher appreciation day at the School for the Blind. "The children made flowers for us and sang `Old McDonald' and `You Are My Sunshine'," Mooney explains, "which was really special because we taught them `You Are My Sunshine'. There wasn't a dry eye in there. That memory—and every other day when the children would caress you, kiss your neck, or just be happy to have you there—made it all so meaningful. It is, by far, the most important thing I've done in my life."

Mooney says that after a day of working, she enjoyed the leisure time spent with students from the vocational school. They were keen to practise their English, and the evenings became a time to share culture and personal lives. One day, because there is no wheelchair access to the beach—the public transport system and even most sidewalks can't be negotiated in wheelchairs—Moonev and a few others hired a truck to take eight of the adult Students to the beach. She says it was a memorable day of relaxation, laughter, food and friendship.

Vallentyne and Anderson have known each other and worked on teacher education projects together over the last four years. Vallentyne says the idea for the orphanage project came from discussions she had with Anderson about his experiences in Pattava. He had been in the city a few times to teach in a graduate program offered there, and he had come to know the orphanage.

"Andy would go over and help out with the kids," says Vallentyne, "and although they were well educated and well nourished, there was no evidence of any playing. In Thailand, it is considered bad karma to have a disability, so often these kids are given away and they aren't seen as having the same sorts of human needs or rights."

Vallentyne says the project really took off after she and Anderson visited Variety Village, a non-profit sport training and fitness complex in Scarborough, Ontario, that provides integrated facilities for people with or without disabilities. She says they received an enthusiastic response from the organizers about becoming involved with the Thai orphanage.

"It's wonderful to think so many people are committed to improving children's lives, especially at something most of us take for granted," says Vallentyne. "Something as simple as playing should be in every child's life."

With the help of funding secured by Anderson through the Vatican's Pathways to Peace program, Vallentyne went to Thailand for one month in the summer of 2000 to put together a proposal for the project. She also researched the games and behaviour that are specific to Thailand. "I want to find out what culturally normative play looks like in the lives of Thai children," she said before she left. "I don't want to bring the Canadian or North American perspective over there, such as `hopscotch'. I want to collect information and listen to what their interests are. Dance is a wonderful start. I want to bring the joy of movement right to their newborns, because children can benefit so much cognitively from movement." Vallentyne says she experienced a fair amount of trepidation when she first arrived at the orphanage. "As I walked down the long driveway of the Pattaya Orphanage in Thailand, I wondered how I would introduce myself to the children and tell them what I was doing there," she recalls. "I passed a group of preschoolers standing inside an open shelter with their teacher. As they watched me walk by, they all greeted me with 'Sawadee Ka', which means `hello'. Moved by this respectful and polite greeting, I bowed in return and said, 'Sawadee Ka.' As I bowed down, a fluorescent ball with a long colourful tail fell out of my bag. Their eyes widened with wonder and excitement. As I bent to pick up the ball, a scoop, a ribbon, and a rubber chicken tumbled out. Shrieks of joy and squeals of laughter reverberated throughout the orphanage grounds."

The statue at the centre of the orphanage—an older child piggybacking a younger one—is an image that Vallentyne says resounds throughout the operation of the orphanage. "After I would reach a group of children how to juggle with scarves, throw a Frisbee, or play a game of foursquare," says Vallentyne, "I would look around and see them teaching others and being equally excited by their `student's' success."

The full Pathways to Peace funding that Anderson thought he had secured was ultimately unavailable. Without funding, Variety Village was unable to stay involved, but the U of A team was still determined to go. To help cover their costs, Vallentyne and her students—McClain, Mooney, Jane Bantleman, '01 BPE, and Jamie Covey, '91 BPE—raised $7,000 from donations and a fund-raising dinner (catered free-of-charge by the King and I Restaurant in Edmonton). They also received $5,000 in donated equipment.

Vallentyne says this summer's project was an incredibly positive experience. The U of A and U of T students formed some strong friendships, and the team has been receiving encouraging updates from the orphanage. Vallentyne is particularly proud about the progress of an autistic child at the School for the Blind who was able to speak but apparently hadn't for a number of years.

"I got a letter in September from one of the teachers that after they put her on the gymnic ball she started laughing," says Vallentyne. "Later, she started using language to ask for the ball."

The U of A is now the lead partner in Play Around the World, a five-year project that places Canadian student volunteers at the Thai orphanage. Vallentyne says even more students will return to Thailand next year, and this time it will be offered as an educational experience/practicum, with students earning credits towards their degrees.

"Our faculty is exploring ways that we can assist the Thai people in developing sustainable programs in the area of physical activity for children with special needs," says Vallentyne. The children will be provided with dance, drama and movement skills, as well as with crafts and games. She says the idea is to allow their bodies to experience the joy of movement as well as the health benefits of physical activity. The goal is to leave the orphanage self-sufficient after five years, so Thai professionals would be able to run their own "play programs."

The work at the Pattaya Orphanage has led to the establishment of Thailand Links with Canada (TLC) in Physical Activity for Special Populations. Under the direction of Mike Mahon, '83 MSc, dean of physical education and recreation, project TLC will build on the efforts of the U of A students at the orphanage, spreading the program across the entire country.

"It's overwhelming, and it's exciting how it's just blossoming," says Vallentyne. "It's one of those things that gives you faith when you see how people want to work to help these children."

Anyone who is interested in sponsoring a student next year or making a donation can contact Vallentyne by e-mail at jane.vallentyne@ualberta.ca

Published Winter 2002.

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