They thought he would never walk. Today, he climbs mountains.

By Elise Derstine | August 20, 2019 | Asia | Youth Empowerment

In 2015, nine-year-old Zy Lee reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro with his father, Walter. It was a remarkable achievement for any child – but for Zy, it was a triumph that his family once considered impossible.

Zy and his father Walter on their journey up Kilimanjaro. © Zy Movement Foundation

Zy has physical disabilities: he was born in 2006 with no right leg, a malformed left leg, half of a right arm, and dislocated hip joints. Otherwise, he was just like any other baby – and a delight to his parents, Walter and Nok, who live in Bangkok with Zy and his two older siblings.

Like all parents, Walter and Nok wanted their child to have every opportunity to reach his potential. But they struggled to find effective treatment for Zy in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

So in 2007, when Zy was one year old, the family traveled to the University of Heidelberg in Germany to meet with a pediatric orthopedic specialist. The doctor convinced them that, with proper treatment and therapy, Zy could learn to stand and walk.

This prognosis filled Walter and Nok with hope – and with determination. Not only to help their son, but to improve treatment and care for the millions of children with disabilities in Southeast Asia. With this goal in mind, they established Zy Movement Foundation (ZMF) in 2010.

Today, ZMF empowers children with disabilities to feel positively about themselves and to achieve greater freedom of movement – thus leading to greater independence in Thai society. And because parents are usually a child’s primary advocates, a significant part of ZMF’s work is support for parents and caregivers, so that they better understand their children’s physical and psychological needs, as well as their rights.

ZMF is also leader in supporting research and knowledge sharing among medical providers in orthopedics, prosthetics, physical therapy, and other related fields, thereby improving access to effective treatments in Southeast Asia.

So how did Zy become the youngest person with disabilities to climb Kilimanjaro?

ZMF runs several inclusive, empowering activities for kids with movement disabilities, including cooking classes, vocational training, and its signature Climb to Change a Life events. With the help of their families and teams of volunteers, the children work together to summit mountain peaks around the world.

Zy and Walter on another recent hike. © Zy Movement Foundation

Walter and Zy made their first trek in 2012 and were so inspired by the experience, they wanted to share it with others. To date, more than 200 children have participated, climbing mountains in five countries around the world.

As of today, 13-year-old Zy has climbed 17 mountains.

“It always feels very great because for me as a person who has difficulty with walking, it’s really hard to conquer and to reach the top of the mountain, because I need to walk,” Zy said. “It takes a lot of time to let me reach the top of the mountain. So it always feels great to finish something that is very difficult to do.”

At the 16th Climb to Change a Life in March 2019, more than 100 family members and volunteers helped 17 children with movement disabilities to climb the Great Wall of China. Climb to Change a Life is designed as a powerful exercise for children and their parents – in which they overcome incredible challenges together – but it also works to raise awareness and shift the way children with disabilities are perceived in broader society.

Another hiker makes a life-changing trek with his team of supporters. © Zy Movement Foundation

At ZMF, Zy is a role model – embodying the organization’s philosophy that children with disabilities can be leaders and decision-makers on issues that affect them.

“I hope the world would know about Zy Movement Foundation and help change the lives of other differently abled kids around the world,” Zy said.

Zy Movement Foundation is part of a cohort of GFC partners funded by our partnership with the Dorothea Haus Ross Foundation in support of children with disabilities.

Header photo: Aerial view of the symbol for the 8th Climb to Change a Life in 2016. Zy Movement Foundation explained that this climb was in remembrance of Thailand’s late King Rama IX, under the climbing theme of “Father, don’t worry, we will be ok.” © Zy Movement Foundation

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