No ordinary journey

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 Kasenya Bissky Dziadyk (L) and her parents, David Dziadyk and Laverne Bissky, during a meeting with Vietnamese families whose children suffer from brain disorder Cerebral Palsy. The Canadian family travel around the world to raise awareness and donation for disabled children in developing countries. / PHOTO COURTESY OF TUOI TRE

A torrential rain the night before had muddied the road to Dong Phu Commune's Health Center in the Mekong Delta province of Vinh Long.

However, David Dziadyk and Laverne Bissky did not delay the visit. They kept taking turns to push the wheelchair of their 17-year-old daughter Kasenya Bissky Dziadyk, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy (an umbrella term for a group of  non-progressive, non-contagious motor conditions that cause physical disability in human development, chiefly in the various areas of body movement).

They did not delay even though their child had a fever the previous night, giving the parents almost no time to sleep. They did not delay the visit because 15 families who had children with the same disability as Kasenya's were waiting for them.

The volunteer couple a high school teacher and a speaker from Alberta Province in Canada was not going to the center to give needy Vietnamese families money. They had something really precious and priceless to offer:  sympathy, hope and education.

Over the past two months, they have visited more than 15 pediatric hospitals, centers for training disabled children and orphanages, and met dozens of families with cerebral palsy-affected children from many localities in the country.

During their visits and meetings, Bissky would talk about and instruct locals on how to deal with affected kids, from carrying them in the arms, to teaching them to do basic tasks like eating and drinking on their own.

"We must hold a strong conviction that our kids are entirely capable of learning, developing and improving mentally," she would tell her audience.

To convince local families, the motivational speaker cites her daughter as an example. Kasenya, who has a particularly severe form of cerebral palsy, can tend to her personal needs by herself, and is now an eleventh grader at a high school for normal students in Canada.

"Affected kids are entirely capable of listening, understanding and even going to school. The thing that counts is their parents' painstaking care and patience and adequate exposure to the outside world," Bissky says.

Such meetings and talks by Bissky and her family have had considerable impacts on affected families in Vietnam, where many still believe disability is caused by bad karma, and that one cannot do anything but live with it.

Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tuyen, a Dong Phu resident, said that in her hometown, whenever people knew that her nine-year-old child had the brain disorder, they would shake their heads and remark that the child would not be able to do anything but wait for his death.

She said that despite many people's beliefs, she sometimes felt that her child could understand and hear what she said, but she could not confirm her feelings until she met the Bissky Dziadyks and heard the Canadian woman talk.

"Now I know that I can train my child [to do tasks] gradually. Who knows, perhaps he will get better, being able to go to school and talk," she said.

Phan Thi Cam Lien, a baby-sitter at Thien Duyen, a charitable center for orphans and disabled children in Ho Chi Minh City's Cu Chi District, also said she and her colleagues have now realized that the kids can understand what they say, so they will be more careful in communicating with them.

Meanwhile, Nguyen Huy Tai, who was among 20 parents who met with the Canadian family during their last speech at HCMC's Children Hospital 1 on August 23, said Dziadyk's accompaniment of his wife and daughter reminded him of how important the role of father is in a family with a cerebral palsied child.

The Vietnamese parents were also motivated and moved to tears when Bissky read out her daughter's letter.

"I know that just like me, other cerebral palsied kids also love their parents a lot though they can't express them in words. Thanks a lot for always being with us."

It is not just parents, but experts like Dr. Nguyen Quang Hien, director of a rehabilitation center for the disabled in the central province of Thua ThienHue, also have felt the changes wrought by the foreign volunteers.

He said Bissky's talks and the presence of Kasenya, who can go to school regardless of her disability, have brought lots of hope and confidence to parents about their children's chances of developing their functions, even at a very small level.

"We [doctors] also have a more positive look at the possibility that children with cerebral palsy can develop their language skills and awareness," Hien said.

According to the Bissky Dziadyks, who are members of cerebral palsy associations in Alberta, they are joining hands with others in writing books instructing people how to take care of children with the brain disorder.

The books will be translated into Vietnamese and gifted to centers and families here, they said.

Vietnam moment

The Canadian family's latest visit to Vietnam is part of activities undertaken by No Ordinary Journey, a non-profit foundation they established in 2008 to raise awareness and donations for disabled children in developing countries. So far, they have visited 16 countries around the world.

They were inspired to establish the foundation after a visit to Vietnam the same year.

Bissky said that even though her daughter was born with the brain disorder, she and her husband vowed that they would never let the disability hold them back from doing things what they love to do, including traveling, which would teach their kids tolerance, flexibility and adaptability.

So, together with Kasenya and their eldest son Devin, they began traveling to different places, first within Canada and then other parts of the world.

During a four-month visit to Southeast Asia, they started incorporating volunteer work into their trips with the hope of seeing things "that are not typically accessible to tourists," Bissky once wrote in an article on their activities for the Canadian-owned Abilities magazine.

They then visited their Vietnamese friend's hometown, which is a village in Hiep My Commune, Cau Ngang District, in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh, and spent one week teaching local children English.

On the penultimate day of their visit, Bissky was walking around the village alone when she came across a woman sitting with her child in her arms.

She realized that the boy had the same disorder as her daughter's, and was stricken by the fact that over the course of a week she had stayed, she had only seen him out of his house once.

Believing that if he had a wheelchair, he could have got out more, Bissky looked for someone who had a wheelchair to donate to the boy, when she returned to Canada. In the end, she found one, and had her friend call the family to tell them that she would give it to them when she visited Cambodia in a few months.

However, a few days later her friend informed her that the boy had died.

"His death spurred us on to do something to help such kids," Bissky said.

But, what that "something" would be was not clear until later when they met parents with disabled children at a rehab center of HCMC's Children Hospital.

Some 16-17 parents were sitting around in a circle and as they were being introduced, some people started crying for some reason that Bissky could not understand.  At the end of the meeting, during which they talked and shared their thoughts, Bissky asked her interpreter why some people had cried at the beginning.

"You have to remember that in countries like Vietnam, it is still considered by some people that it is shameful to have a child with disability. So when you came, you not only brought them education but you brought them dignity," the interpreter told Bissky.

This encouraged Bissky and Dziadyk to establish the No Ordinary Journey that is "not about giving people wheelchairs," but "about training people on how to provide a wheelchair for children who need it."

"It's bringing in dignity through education," Bissky said.

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