Empowering children with disabilities in Thailand

By Global Fund for Children | December 17, 2021 | Asia | Education, Youth Empowerment

This blog post was written by Thai Child Development Foundation’s Assistant Director Walaiphon Thongchan and by GFC Senior Communications Officer Kyra Gurney.

Through its school and national outreach programs, Thai Child Development Foundation helps children with special needs obtain a quality education, develop life skills, and become more independent.

When Nong Frame* was an infant, she began to experience epileptic seizures that deprived her brain of oxygen, leading to developmental delays.

When she reached the end of sixth grade, Nong Frame was unable to continue her studies at the local public school. From the mountainous area where she lives in southern Thailand’s Chumphon province, however, the closest public school for children with special needs was more than 100 miles away.

Luckily, Nong Frame’s family learned about Thai Child Development Foundation (TCDF), an organization that provides quality education to children with disabilities at its own education center, while also working with local schools, village leaders, and government agencies to ensure that kids with special needs have access to education, life skills trainings, and healthcare.

Nong Frame enrolled in TCDF’s Forest School Academy, which offers an academic curriculum that includes reading, writing, and math, as well as communication and life skills, physical therapy, sports, and yoga. TCDF’s goal is to empower children with disabilities to become more independent, improving their quality of life. In addition to working with children, TCDF provides workshops to parents on topics like child safety, special needs education, and girls’ empowerment.

A child at TCDF's Forest School Academy.

A child at TCDF's Forest School Academy. © TCDF

Some of the students who attend the Forest School Academy are eventually able to return to their local public school for one or more days a week. Others enroll in TCDF’s occupational training center when they turn 16, learning organic farming, fish farming, how to make soap, and other skills. Students ages 18 and up earn a stipend, and the proceeds from the farm and other social ventures are reinvested in TCDF. Some of the students go on to use these skills outside the organization to help support their families.

“Everything we do is always about sustainability, not just growing our own food, but also to be independent in your home, in your own village,” said Executive Director Rosalie Tieges, who founded TCDF in 2004.

This striving for independence also extends to the organization, which has set up a nature lodge for tourists called Eco-logic Thailand that generates income to support TCDF. “We want to be sustainable in food and finance,” Rosalie said.

Two years ago, TCDF began to expand its work nationwide. The organization wanted to support children living in other rural areas throughout Thailand where there are few educational centers for kids with special needs. TCDF began offering educational scholarships and training local women in villages throughout the country to support underserved children.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, impacting TCDF and the families it serves.

TCDF's Forest School Academy.

TCDF's Forest School Academy. © TCDF

TCDF has kept its school open throughout the global health crisis because online learning is not an option for most of its students. It has also accelerated its national expansion to meet a growing need for services. But at the same time, TCDF has had to close Eco-logic to visitors to protect its students and staff from COVID-19, losing a major source of financial support.

Despite these challenges, TCDF currently helps hundreds of children throughout Thailand and works with schools across the country. The organization provides support to teachers and families, including scholarships that help cover the costs of transportation, school lunches, and books; specialist research into learning disabilities; and mentorship from a TCDF staff person who visits children with special needs, keeps in communication with their teachers, and provides guidance to their parents.

Walaiphon Thongchan, TCDF’s Assistant Director, has helped lead the organization’s expansion. “The best part for me is that I can have a chance to help the children in need and to help the community,” she said.

TCDF has been a GFC partner since 2018 and is currently part of the GFC initiative Increasing Opportunities for Children with Disabilities, which is supported by the Dorothea Haus Ross Foundation. In addition to offering financial support, the partnership with GFC has provided TCDF with capacity development. Several TCDF team members have attended GFC conferences and training.

Rosalie helps a child at TCDF's Forest School Academy learn to ride a bike.

Rosalie helps a child learn to ride a bike. © TCDF

“GFC was the first organization that reached out to us on its own and it’s been great,” Rosalie said. “I was so thrilled because normally when people visit us, we’re already so thankful because we’re so hidden in the jungle off the beaten track. At that time, we never had organizations reaching out to us before.”

Walaiphon and Rosalie said that one of the things they love most about their work is seeing students succeed. Students like Nong Frame, who is now 21 and continuing her education at a non-formal education center in her village, with support from TCDF, while also learning to bake cakes, work as a barista, and carry out basic office tasks through TCDF’s occupational training program. She receives a monthly salary for her work, which has helped her to become more independent.

“We just need to give children the opportunity to grow into their best selves,” Rosalie said. “Even though we encounter sad stories and really challenging situations on a day-to-day basis, we also really see growth and empowerment and laughter and positivity and that is the best part.”

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of this program participant.

Header photo: A young person at TCDF’s Forest School Academy picks vegetables on the organic farm. © TCDF

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