At 23 years of age, I was about to embark on a journey that most people my age would not. Even though this would not be my first trip on a volunteer mission abroad, the multitude of emotions that I felt towards this mission were familiar to the ones in the past. I was nervous about working with a team that I have just recently met, unsure of the situation that I was about to be thrown into, but above all, I was excited and willing to make a difference in the lives of others living with cerebral palsy (CP) in Vietnam.
Before my trip to Vietnam, I have never really given any thoughts to what it was like to live with CP in the United States because of the opportunities that were afforded to me and the understanding that most people have about disability. However when I entered our sweltering clinic for the first time in Hue, my understanding about CP within Vietnam was broadened by the stories that were told by our patients and/or their mothers. The stories were told with anguish, frustration, and the melancholic tone of hopelessness.
The themes of each story were similar to one another and each one struck an emotional cord. In a world where children are the future of a family, families begin to see the future with a bleak perspective because of the social stigma involved with CP within the country of Vietnam. Most families hide their children from the public. Children lie in bed all day as if they were given life sentences in prison. Aunts and uncles are denied a relationship with the child. Children are denied education because it is considered to be “a waste of time,” and mothers often contemplate suicide because the pain is too unbearable and support systems are scarce.
After listening to everyone’s story within a cramped room of the hospital where we set up our clinic, I stopped for a moment and projected myself in the lives of one of the patients and thought to myself, “How would my life be different if I grew up in Vietnam instead of the United States?” For starters, I would have never been able to attend university because it would be considered “too impossible” and a “waste of time.” I would probably never have been able to walk outside my home without having the fear that someone would view me with pity.
Most importantly, I would never have had the opportunity to travel and make a difference in someone else’s life half way around the world. This is when I realized how important it is for me to share my story with everyone in the room; A story to offer some hope that children do not have to lie in bed all day and that they could have an education and a future if they are given the opportunities to succeed instead of being denied the use of the unique gifts they possess as human beings because of the circumstances of life.
When all of the mothers and our patients had their opportunity to tell their story and the struggles they faced, it was my turn. I elected to speak to them in Vietnamese because I wanted them to hear it straight from me rather than through a translator because things can get lost through translations and I wanted them to feel the emotions that I have with every word I spoke. I wanted to tell them the amount of faith I have in each and every one of their children because deep down in my heart, I know everyone in the room was capable of accomplishing extraordinary things.
As I told them who I was and what I accomplished, such as earning a Tae Kwon Do Black Belt, a Bachelor of Science, and numerous wins as a wrestler while living with CP, I felt their attentive eyes fixated on me and their ears listening to every word I spoke. After I finished my story, jaws dropped, the room fell silent for a moment then erupted with loud applause as the pessimistic room changed to a room full of hope.
As the applause was happening in the background, I thought to myself, “Mission Accomplished. Hope is present. All things are now possible. Let’s go to work.”
— Timmy Le is a volunteer with No Ordinary Journey Foundation and he participated with NOJF on a mission in March 2014. He lives with Cerebral Palsy and is a 2013 Graduate of The Catholic University of America, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry (Cum Laude).