There was never a less likely candidate to work with children than Jackie Wrafter. ‘If I stared at other people’s children, they bellowed’, she laughs. Nevertheless, after leaving her publishing job and taking off for a year around the world, this is exactly what she found herself doing.
‘It was 2000 and we were in Central Vietnam’, she recalls. ‘My travelling companion, Jacci Bulman, persuaded me to visit an orphanage.’ Jackie went along, simply to keep her friend happy but it became one of those life-changing moments extraordinary people often talk about.
Jackie: ‘There were 70 children in this orphanage and, amongst them, 16 children who had disabilities lying in a dark, fetid room, day in day out, while flies landed on them and on their food. Nobody hugged them or spoke to them or played with them, and the only touch of a human hand came when a carer grasped their wrists and ankles to carry them to the wash room to hose them down.’
The two women were stunned by what they had seen. ‘We ended up visiting the children every day for a month and gradually we saw several beginning to wake up and look outside the parameters of their very small world, just from the small amount of attention we gave them.’
Unable to walk away from this pitiful situation, the women resolved that they had to do something. And it was here that The Kianh Foundation – a small non-government organisation – was formed.
YOU SAY KHAHN WE SAY KIANH
Jackie: ‘We named it Kianh after a young boy in the room who had Cerebral Palsy. His parents had both died in an accident and he had been placed in this orphanage with his older brother and sister. His day to day life was dire but he was still very happy and smiley and extremely beautiful and charismatic.’
Kianh became their self-appointed assistant during their month there and attempted to support their interactions with those in the orphanage. ‘We found out on our second visit that his name was Khanh not Kianh’, laughs Jackie. ‘We had mis-heard but we’d registered the charity by then, so had to leave it.’
WHAT HAVE I GOT MYSELF IN TO?
A Liverpool lass, Jackie grew up in Wavertree. After graduating from Sussex University and an M. Phil in Modernism at Glasgow, she ended up working at Mills & Boon as a publisher of romantic fiction.
‘There was absolutely nothing in my background, no qualifications, no experience or anything that meant I could work with these children,’ Jackie shared with an incredulous smile. ‘But I suppose we Liverpudlians have great self-belief and think there is nothing that we cannot do if we put our minds to it. So along with my friend Jacci, I jumped in feet first. ’
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
The first thing they did as The Kianh Foundation was to employ a Vietnamese physiotherapist to work with the children. ‘We literally knew nothing, I mean there was a Doctor who visited briefly and told me one of the children with Hydrocephalus needed a shunt and to contact a local NGO, East Meets West, about this. Having no idea what a shunt was, and that it involved surgery, I imagined it must be some medieval-looking contraption to support the child’s head, so I emailed the organisation to ask when I could come and pick up a shunt from them. Not surprisingly, they never replied!’ she laughs.
But determination pushes through all. Specialist volunteers were recruited to the orphanage and they trained the local staff. Additional staff were employed, classrooms were set up and a physio program was put in place. The two girls provided medical care, clothes, shoes, trips to the beach, everything they could that would make the children’s lives better.’
AND THEN THERE WAS KHOA
Jackie: ‘Jacci Bulman eventually left the charity and pursued her career as a poet and a businessman from Durham, Nick Keegan, came out to work with me and help develop the organization. I was certainly no business person. Nick likes to recall the moment he asked to see our charity accounts and I handed him a plastic bag with 13 envelopes of money from different people in it.’
With Nick on board the Kianh Foundation became a stable entity. And Jackie became a mother.
Jackie: ‘I always felt that I should adopt one of the children who had a disability. It was very unlikely that anybody else was going to provide them with a real home and then Khoa came to the orphanage. He was 7 with Cerebral Palsy and had the sharpest mind and sense of humor. It was an instant connection and I knew I could be his mum.
TO DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
During their years at the orphanage another need became increasingly apparent. Families were placing their special needs children into the institution, solely to get the services the Kianh Foundation provided.
Jackie: ‘There was nothing in the community for them, and many families did not have access to even the most basic support for their child. For some of the families, staying at home to care for the child, or going out to work, meant the difference between being able to place a meal on the table that night, or not. You could see many of them were burned out, and they thought the Foundation could somehow ‘fix’ their child.
‘We dreamed of having a centre that could provide all the services we did at the orphanage, only more, and better. If we could support families and help them with their children, hopefully this might keep their child within the family.
‘You just never know what’s around the corner,’ Jackie continued. Through a good deal of chance and luck, the Foundation received a significant amount of funding from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to build such a centre and, eventually, the dream became a reality.
The centre opened its doors in the poor, rural district of Dien Ban, in April 2012. Dien Ban was in the top 10% of areas devastated by bombing during the American War and was covered in dioxcins. The amount of disability in this area, either caused by Agent Orange, or poverty, or poor medical care is huge. The center was quickly filled.
SOME DREAMS ARE POSSIBLE – BUT IT’S HARD WORK
Today the Kianh Foundation centre is fast becoming the leading provider of special education and therapy services in Vietnam. But it takes huge amounts of fundraising and donations to support 99 children and their families, as well as employing 40 Vietnamese staff. The Foundation works with children from a few months old to the age of 18, and with every kind of disability imaginable.
‘Still, it feels like we are only touching the tip of the iceberg,’ Jackie says. ‘We have 100 children on our waiting list and that list grows weekly. We are contacted by families in need from all over Vietnam, and other organisations are now approaching us for help and training.’
It’s a success story but often that’s a problem, according to Jackie. ‘People perceive you as thriving and not needing support when the opposite is true. It costs a huge amount to keep our facility going and we are constantly having to find ways to get support. It can be exhausting but then I remember the sight of the disabled children I first saw back in 2000 and it keeps me going.’
The Kianh Foundation really need your help. So if you are able to assist in just a small way, please do: http://www.kianh.org.uk/
Sharon Guest with Jackie Wrafter