Elaine Hennessy is a long-term American volunteer working in Shenyang, China, together with her friend Migyeong Kang, from South Korea.
In November of 2004, Elaine Hennessy and Migyeong Kang started an orphanage in China, with a focus on handicapped orphans, founded within an established orphanage organization. Dream Home began.
At first, there were 21 mentally handicapped and physically disabled youth. Then in August of 2005, Dream Home received 24 more children, and then six babies with cerebral palsy were welcomed in March of 2006.
While looking through an old Rifton catalog left at the orphanage, Elaine became acquainted with MOVE, and obtained a MOVE Curriculum. She learned more about this approach that helps children for whom independent mobility was thought impossible. Before long, her inspiration brought her to the challenging effort of obtaining two minimally-used Pacer gait trainers, that she located through an ad on e-bay.
DongDong, an orphan boy Elaine first met in 1999, has cerebral palsy of the type where his legs are spastic and stiff. At that time, Elaine already noticed that DongDong was a young boy with a great attitude – he would unsuccessfully attempt to move on the floor by doing a form of push-ups. At Dream Home, other children are able to get from place to place on their own, but DongDong and his friend MaBing are on the floor unless they are in class where they are taken in wheelchairs. MaBing can move his own wheelchair when he is in it. But DongDong is unable to self propel his wheelchair by himself.
China’s streets and sidewalks are dirty and considered so by the Chinese. Whenever Elaine would see a beggar in the cold on the dirty sidewalks in Shenyang, pushing a container in front of him for spare change, she would think about DongDong, now 14 years old. How could a boy who can’t walk or even “wheel” his own wheelchair have a chance to enter society?
Elaine included DongDong’s story in a newsletter and encouraged friends of Dream Home to make end-of-year donations to buy therapy equipment. In Elaine’s words, her friends “came through like gang-busters” so Elaine located used equipment to maximize the donations. The gait trainers were on their way!
In fact, the gait trainers were the second of two shipments. The first shipment contained a new wheelchair, two used Mobile Standers and another used item. And, to top it off, the arrival of the equipment would coincide with the visit of Alice, an OT from Michigan, who was spending her winter break volunteering at the orphanage.
But little did Elaine know about the hurdles that Chinese Customs would bring. Because of a new law in China prohibiting ANY “used” medical equipment from entering the country, Dream Home was caught in an agonizing situation. The first shipment was refused entry. Only the wheelchair was accepted; all the other items had to be abandoned for shipment back to the states. Then the second shipment arrived. Customs officials denied entry of the gait trainers. Elaine asked help of everyone and anyone. They tried everything suggested, and still no luck. Even the president of the orphanage went to the airport to plead with Customs but to no avail. There was nothing left to do.
Then, the next week, the head of Customs visited the orphanage. During the conversation, she understood for the first time that there were two shipments involved, and agreed to investigate the second shipment. A couple of days later, she called to say the gait trainers were “used” and would have to be abandoned: the orphanage staff could come and see the items for themselves. Elaine and Migyeong went. When they got there, the head of customs came with them to view the gait trainers. Elaine admits to being more than a little tearful on seeing the items brought out of the boxes in perfect condition except for a little dirt on the wheels. Dirt that was probably there from when the gait trainers were wheeled to the box and shipped.
And at that moment, to everyone’s amazement, Mrs. Wang, the head of customs, said, “They look NEW!” She pronounced the products acceptable for entry into China. Now Elaine really began boo-hooing in earnest, with her great surprise and relief! “She changed her mind,” Elaine said later. “I think she is representative of the ‘new’ China that is more compassionate towards others.”
Elaine tells: “When I showed the gait trainer to DongDong for the first time, he squealed like a little kid on Christmas morning! It was like he saw his ticket to independence. I enlisted the help of a mentally handicapped youth to help me get DongDong into the gait trainer, supported by the sling seat, and adjusted the arm prompts. We turned DD loose in the narrow hallway, but because he is stronger on his left side, he ran into the right wall. We made all four wheels go straight, and that helped. When he did get near the wall, he soon learned how to push himself off to straighten himself out. He kept going and going. He was so excited he just couldn’t shut up or quit thanking me, what a guy! DongDong refused to get out of the gait trainer, so he went to class with it.”
By setting up the gait trainer in the posterior position, Elaine discovered that DongDong could be in it and work at his desk. Now DD is anxious to get into it the first thing every morning. With warmer weather, DD will be able to go outside and really enjoy using it where there is plenty of space to maneuver. And when visiting teams come to Dream Home to take the children on field trips, DongDong will no longer be at the mercy of someone pushing him in a wheelchair, but will be able to get around by himself on a level with the other youth. Elaine says, “Everyone is looking forward to seeing him FREE. What a great experience for everybody.”
Alice the OT’s visit proved worthwhile. She spent virtually all of her available time with the kids, and before her short visit was over, the children were beginning to reach for objects, or began using their hands to keep from falling. Some children now hold their own heads up when on their tummies and even crawl in some cases!
Inspired by Alice, the caregivers at Dream Home are now doing even more than keeping everyone clean and fed, although they can stay quite busy doing just that. They use what they have learned from Alice to work with the children toward improved mobility and balance, and now after Alice has returned to the USA, these conscientious ladies are still at it.
Migyeong and Elaine plan to attend the MOVE Basic Provider Training in Bakersfield in June 2006. They know the value of a team approach between therapists and caregivers. And they are very committed to their vision of giving education, therapy, and enriching activities – with love – to orphans with disabilities in China.
Elaine still has the dream of providing Mobile Standers for those that are paralyzed and will never walk, and gait trainers for those that are not paralyzed but just can’t make their legs work well enough yet to walk without support. In fact, Elaine, Migyeong, and all the staff at Dream Home have a lot of dreams. They dream of a facility to provide early childhood intervention for parents of handicapped kids, as well as a state of the art rehab center utilizing the MOVE Curriculum and Rifton equipment.
Just you wait and see. With the great attitudes shown by people like DongDong, Elaine, Migyeong, and Alice, there’s no telling what all will happen.