The following speech was delivered at Bill Bowness’ birthday party on 25 November 2016 in front of 150 guests.
Thank you so much. Firstly, I wanted to say a massive happy birthday to Bill, a huge thank you for being such a great friend, mentor and advisor and for giving me the opportunity to speak to you all today. Bill’s words were very touching and he has been a wonderful supporter for a number of years now.
Before I speak to you about my work in Cambodia, I wanted to tell you a little about how I’ve come to stand before you today. My great grandparents left China during a time of famine, and moved to Malaysia. My parents came to Australia in the 70’s, seeking a better life for their children. At the time, my father had $200 in his pocket.
In light of this sacrifice, I have always been aware of how fortunate I was to be born in this country. I feel like I had won the lottery by being born here in Australia, where we have so much provided for us that we often take for granted.
After studying Physiotherapy and International Development and working with children with disabilities in Vietnam, China and Australia, in 2012 I found myself in Cambodia. I met a local charity, with 14 Cambodian staff, who worked in some of the poorest parts of the country.
The staff rode motorbikes along dusty roads to places where there are no hospitals or health centres to work with children with all kinds of disabilities. They give these children basic services like Physiotherapy and special education and help them become more independent. Many of the children are able to go to school for the first time because of the work of these wonderful people.
When I met them I was taken aback by their dedication and hard work. It was through this organisation that I met an 11-year-old boy by the name of Ling. Meeting Ling changed my life.
Ling has cerebral palsy, brain damage that occurs around the time of birth, and as a result, his movement was affected. He could walk but not run. With some difficulty, he was able to ride a bicycle. The staff had worked hard with Ling and provided basic physiotherapy, given him a bicycle, backpack and books and enabled Ling to physically be able to get himself to school.
There was only one problem. Because of Ling’s cerebral palsy, the muscles that controlled his speech were also affected therefore he was unable to speak clearly. Most people assumed he wouldn’t be able to cope in a normal school, where there are often 50 children in one classroom. The local people used a phrase in Khmer language to describe Ling “ot kroop tuc” which means “not enough water” or not enough brain matter.
You can imagine how incredibly hurtful this would be to a child. To be written off at such an early age by those around you.
I went back to my hotel room that night and thought about Ling’s situation. What if Ling wasn’t stupid? What if he just had a problem with communication?
We decided to train one of my colleagues, Phearom, in basic speech therapy techniques. She worked hard month after month to slowly improve his speech. In return, Ling practiced with Phearom and started to gradually improve.
A few months later I returned to Ling’s house, only to find that Ling wasn’t home. I was worried for him. Ling was always at home – he was so dependent on his parents all the time. Had he run away? What had happened to Ling?
Ling’s parents assured me that he was fine. At the age of 12, Ling was going to school for the first time.
6 or so months later, I went back to the same village and heard even better news. Ling wasn’t just attending school, he was excelling. Ling, the boy who everyone had written off, was coming second in his class.
Here we have a child who had entered the school at the age of 12, and was now outflanking children who had already been in the school system for 7 years.
Ling’s story taught me the power of Speech Therapy. Speech Therapy can change a child’s life. Sending a child to school for the first time, especially one who no one thought would ever make it, that in itself is a huge accomplishment.
And yet, looking around the whole country of Cambodia, I soon discovered that Ling was not alone. Not by a long shot.
In fact, 600,000 people or one in 25 Cambodians needed speech therapy. And yet, there is not one single Cambodian Speech Therapist in the country who is able to provide this vital service.
No university course, no government policy, no pathway for this profession to begin.
In Australia, there are over 7,000 Speech Therapists working in hospitals, health centres and schools. They work with children who have communication difficulties. These include those, like Ling, who cannot speak clearly but also those who cannot speak at all. Then there are those who cannot process incoming communication well, perhaps because of Down Syndrome or Autism.
The second half of those who need Speech Therapy are those with swallowing disorders. What happens to these people is that food and liquid enters the lungs instead of the stomach, they are then at risk of contracting Pneumonia and dying.
These problems occur often in children from birth but they could also happen to each and every one of us. If you are unfortunate enough to have a brain injury or stroke, chances are you’ll end up with a communication or swallowing difficulty.
I simply couldn’t believe that there was 600,000 ‘Lings’ out there unable to go to school or get a job because of their communication difficulties. I couldn’t believe that thousands of people were dying unnecessarily due to a lack of Speech Therapists.
In 2013 I was standing at a crossroad. I could easily return to Australia and find a job. I could continue living overseas and apply to work with the United Nations or another large organisation.
But in all honesty there was never another option. Given the scale of the problem, I had to do something about it.
And so, OIC Cambodia was born.
OIC is not an acronym. It doesn’t stand for ‘Only in Cambodia’ or ‘Overtly Interesting Calculus’. It stands for that moment when you don’t understand something then suddenly you do exclaiming “Oh I see!”.
That’s very much what Speech Therapy is about. Providing connection and understanding between people.
The world we are trying to create is one where every child and every adult in Cambodia can experience these moments. Everyone who needs Speech Therapy can get it.
We are working towards this goal in Cambodia through creating university courses, raising awareness, creating jobs, influencing government policy, and through training doctors and teachers to understand basic Speech Therapy.
As important as knowing how to do the work is knowing when to stop.
And this is where our exit strategy comes into play. We don’t want to be in Cambodia forever. Neither do we want to continue to ask for donations decades from now.
By the year 2030, we want to see 100 Speech Therapists employed by the Cambodian Government.
Upon achieving this Goal, OIC will exit the country and the Cambodian Government will take on the profession, own and grow it, so that all the children who need Speech Therapy can receive it.
Because ultimately we want to see more of this (see below picture). This is a picture drawn by a young girl by the name of Len Mary. She lives in the same part of Cambodia as Ling. She’s been able to produce this picture, and I’ll pass it around for you to see, because of Speech Therapy. Because of going to school for the first time.
If OIC has taught me one thing over the years, it’s the power of the individual to influence those around us. That’s how an organisation grows from 1 person, to now 6 core staff, 4 therapists, and over 50 volunteers across the globe.
And that’s where you come in. I’ll be here all evening to talk with you, to answer your questions, and to hear your advice on how we are going to achieve this incredibly ambitious goal. As Bill mentioned, donations go a long way in Cambodia. Please dig deep to help us get every child like Ling into school.
No matter where a child is born, no matter what his or her condition is, every child deserves the chance at an education. In 2013, I made a promise to all of the ‘Lings’ in Cambodia. I would not abandon them until we knew they could receive the help they needed. With your help, we can get there.
Thank you so much.