From the time I was a young child, I dreamed of traveling the world and doing humanitarian work. This was a strange dream for a child who grew up on a farm in rural Saskatchewan (Canada) and had never even left the province until I was an adult.
Within a year of finishing University and starting my first job, I took my first trip: two months in Europe, traveling on my own. I was hooked!
A few years later when my soon-to-be husband proposed, I asked for a trip instead of a diamond ring. So we spent our honeymoon in an obscure little Central American country called Belize. It was my first taste of the developing world and I loved it: even the cold showers and geckos on the ceiling in our cabana on the beach!
My husband, David, had done a lot of traveling before we were married. In fact he had gone on an 8 month, round-the-world trip. We knew we would continue to travel and we even talked about taking our kids on an extended trip. I hung on to my dream of traveling the world and doing humanitarian work.
When our son, Devin was born we happily put our travel plans on hold. Two and half years later, our daughter Kasenya was born. She was three months premature and by six months old, she was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy (CP). It became evident that she would be severely affected and would require a wheelchair for mobility. Traveling with our family was going to be a huge challenge.
As we became accustomed to having a child with a disability, my husband and I began to see the silver lining and recognize the gift that disability might be. We vowed that people would say that we never let disability hold us back!
The summer that Kasenya was one and Devin was three we did our first camping trip. We drove for three hours to a remote lake. We arrived in the late afternoon, set up the tent trailer and made supper. It was a beautiful Saskatchewan prairie summer evening and the lake was perfectly calm as the sun started to go down. As part of her disability, our daughter has a sleep disorder. And although she still has, it in the early years it was severe. But with all the fresh air we thought we were bound for a good night sleep. Kasenya had a different idea. She found the fresh air invigorating and was up every half hour for the whole night. Until dawn when she finally fell soundly asleep. Then the squirrels started dropping pine cones on the metal roof of the tent trailer. We got no sleep at all. In the morning we had breakfast, packed up our stuff and drove 3 hours home.
We persisted with camping and have since camped in all 10 Canadian provinces.
Then it was time to take a bolder step. We planned our first overseas trip – to Australia. After our second trip to Australia, Devin who was 12, declared that he had a goal in life: to visit all 7 continents …. while his parents were still paying for it.
In between the Australia trips, we wanted to know if we could cope in a less developed country. So we spent two weeks in Cuba. We took local buses and rented a small house from a Cuban family. We lived like Cubans for those two weeks and loved it. But somehow it was not enough.
In 2008, it was time to take the plunge. So my husband took time off work and we pulled our children out of school for 4 months in order to travel to South East Asia. We refused to let school stand in the way of our children’s education.
During those four months, we backpacked through China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We spent about 6 weeks of that time volunteering at orphanages and Buddhist temples and in a remote village in Vietnam. And we also visited hospitals.
In Saigon, we met with a group of parents who also have children with CP. They sat quietly around the perimeter of the room and I noticed that many of them were crying so I went around the room and shook hands or hugged each of them. We spent the morning with these families, sharing our knowledge and experiences as well as our views of disability and inclusion.
At the end I asked our translator why the parents had been crying. She said that in developing countries such as Vietnam it is considered shameful to have a child with a disability. By including our child as a full member of our family, we had not only given these families an education but also dignity. There was a flash of light as I began to see for the first time how my dream of traveling in the developing world and doing humanitarian work would be enhanced and not hindered by having a child with a disability.
In 2012, I started a charity called No Ordinary Journey Foundation (NOJF). And in 2013, David, Kasenya and I spent 6 weeks traveling and researching how the Foundation could best help children living with Cerebral Palsy in Vietnam.
In early 2014, NOJF did its first official mission to Vietnam. I traveled with a team of 10 plus Vietnamese translators. Amoungst others, our team had a doctor, nurse, social worker and therapists, as well as a young man who has Cerebral Palsy. The team came from 4 countries including Australia.
On this two week mission, our team provided training to 100 families and 40 medical professionals on the management of Cerebral Palsy. We worked in 4 locations in some of the poorest areas of Vietnam. Check out the website at www.NOJFoundation.com.
Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, I would have never imagined having a child who uses a wheelchair – or how far that would take me. The opportunity to work in Vietnam with families who have children with Cerebral Palsy has been gratifying beyond description. It has truly been the silver lining in the cloud of disability.
As for my family: we have been able to keep our vow to never let disability hold us back and we have traveled to six continents. We have not been to Antarctica ….. yet.
Laverne Bissky is the executive director of No Ordinary Journey Foundation and a professional speaker. Check out her website at www.Bissky.com.