Mae Sot is a vibrant border town in northwest Thailand. For decades, displaced Burmese people have sought refuge from one of the longest lasting civil wars in the world.
Though Thailand has provided safety, and for many, work opportunities, children of Burmese migrant families have not always been able to receive adequate access to education or healthcare. In 2011, All You Need is Love (AYNiLUK) linked with local community based organisation BMWEC (Burmese Migrant Workers Education Committee) to provide education for over 3,000 children in the Mae Sot area.
It became clear to AYNiL(UK) that children with disabilities faced additional challenges, and their needs were not being met. Stepping Stones Therapy Project was established by Scottish physiotherapist, and AYNIL(UK) director, Irene Croal, in an attempt to offer access to therapy and specialised equipment, to enable children with disabilities to achieve their full potential.
Stepping Stones now supports around 50 children on an ongoing basis and their families in the Mae Sot area. We feel that there is lots more work to do as there is a substantial need for further provision.
The Friendship Bridge spans this river on the border between Thailand and Burma, just 8km from the centre of Mae Sot.
Supported by a board of directors based in Scotland, Stepping Stones employs chartered phsyiotherapists on a full-time basis, based in Mae Sot.
Currently, there are two therapists in post, Hannah Pickard and Catherine Lomas. Hannah is a highly specialist paediatric physiotherapist who is originally from Canada, but has worked extensively in child development clinics and hospitals, including Great Ormond Street. Catherine is also a paediatric physiotherapist who previously worked in east London, and who has worked with children with disabilities for many years. Both have worked in professional voluntary and development roles across Asia.
It is a primary aim of Stepping Stones to encourage capacity building, through the provision of training to local people, therefore we currently employ Burmese trainee therapist, Yin Yin Aye, who also acts as a translator during community visits. Yin Yin Aye is our second trainee and undertakes intensive modular training, as well as work-based learning, fully supervised by Hannah. On occasion we have been able to arrange visits from visiting specialists including occupational therapists and psychologists, but physiotherapy remains the central approach.
Stepping Stones works closely with the local Special Needs School, Starflower, where children with a range of additional support needs attend regularly.
From Left to Right: AYNiL Director Irene Croal, Lead Physiotherapist Hannah Pickard, Trainee Therapist Yin Yin Aye.
What we do
All of the children who we work with are from the Burmese migrant population, displaced by decades of civil unrest in neighbouring Burma.
All live in sub-standard and basic accommodation with limited access to clean water, electricity and many lack adequate food. Harsh economic realities have often split families apart and education, even if locally available, will not have been considered an option for most disabled children. The focus of the Stepping Stones project is towards providing physiotherapy for children with lifelong neurological conditions such as Cerebral Palsy. Maintaining a focus is important to ensure that we are able to meaningfully impact on the wellbeing of the children with whom we work and to be able to commit to long term and direct therapeutic interventions.
All of the children we help live within the Mae Sot district, mostly over 3 years old, though we do hope to develop an Early Intervention Programme soon. Most live with a parent or extended family, though a few live within orphanages. Prior to our involvement, none had received any help from therapists, nor had their families even heard of the concept. There remains a lot of misunderstanding around disability, some believing it to be caused by immunisation or due to exposure to sickness at an early age, while some believe it to be a punishment. Yet, we have been overwhelmed by the willingness of families to engage with their childrens’ therapy and for many, progress is rapid and life-changing.