Tag: Disabilities

The boy by the side of the road

Written by on May 16, 2013 in Voices from the Field with 0 Comments

He saw a boy lying in the middle of the road. What he did next will surprise you and might even change the way you act next time you see a child in need.

Racing round the corner on my way to the meeting a little faster than usual, I thought of all the things I had to do that day. I was showing a visitor around town and I also had my own errands that needed completing. Not far to go, I thought to myself. We’re only a couple of minutes late and we’re nearly there. I’m sure they’ll wait. As we slowed to negotiate a pothole, I looked up ahead and saw that there in the middle of the road lay a little boy, about eleven years old. A car had slowed to edge past him and the boy seemed oblivious – either asleep or unconscious. It was your typical Good Samaritan situation, but I was certainly not in the mood for interruptions. After all, living in Cambodia I came across this type of situation reasonably often. He was probably just a glue-sniffer – wasted and sleeping it off. I sighed, pulled over and stopped. We shook the boy and quickly realised that he was intellectually disabled and didn’t seem able to speak. My friend, knowing we were late, suggested we give him some money and be on our way. But I knew that cash would not really help this boy. No one seemed to know who he was or where he had come from.


I propped him up on the front of my bike and we took off for the meeting. On reaching our destination he seemed to come alive. Someone at the meeting gave him some fruit, which he accepted with a grunt and then proceeded to munch voraciously, most of the juice ending up on the upholstery. I apologised with embarrassment and tried in vain to keep him under control. After the meeting we returned to the spot where we had found the boy and asked again if anyone knew who he was. An old man with a cigarette balanced on his bottom lip informed me with a pout that the boy was just a crazy street kid — mentally deficient and not worth the trouble I was going to. My heart sank as I realised this was a problem that wasn’t going to go away. I spent the afternoon making calls to every orphanage I could think of. None would take a mentally disabled child. It remained unspoken, but I knew they reserved their places for children who were easy to look after. In fact, in Cambodia, most orphanages are full of children who are not even orphans, merely poor. Cambodians shrewdly treat these well-meaning (often church-run) orphanages as a boarding school, where they can drop their kids off for a good education then reap the rewards when they leave as fully educated adults. I cursed the system as I slammed down the phone after yet another rejection. I knew that particular mission orphanage was only a third full, and yet they were unwilling to take him! Why didn’t they focus on the kids who really needed a place rather than the cute ones who looked good in the fundraising photos, or the lucrative babies who were easy to adopt out to rich Westerners? Finally, I found a drop-in centre for street kids that had a residential facility. The only problem was the kids were free to come and go if they wished. I knew he would run away if given half a chance as he had already tried to run away from me a couple of times. But what choice did I have? With my heart full of misgivings, I took him over to the centre and the staff there welcomed him kindly. “Give me a call if there are any problems,” I said as I left, feeling sure it wouldn’t be long before I heard from them. Sure enough, the next day they called, saying that at first light that morning he had taken off all his clothes and run away. They apologised profusely and I told them not to worry, spending the next couple of hours driving the streets looking for him in vain. Two weeks later a Cambodian friend called, “Craig, do you remember that boy you were with a couple of weeks ago?” “Yes,” I replied. “Well I think he’s in front of my house — and Craig…he’s not wearing any clothes!” This time I took him home and my wife gamely agreed to put him up till we could find a more permanent place for him to live. Over the next few days, we found out that he had been living on the streets for years, surviving without language by pointing at food and throwing a head-banging tantrum if the shopkeepers didn’t give it to him. We witnessed this ritual a couple of times when he accompanied us to the market and marvelled at how he survived using this cunning method despite his difficulty with speech. Soon we were able to arrange for him to go and live with a kind-hearted Cambodian foster family. He needed twenty-four-hour care and supervision. He couldn’t go to the toilet by himself or even dress or wash himself. Within weeks, he had learnt a handful of words, was looking much healthier and had begun to settle down.

My reward came every time I went to visit. He would see me coming from the street and come rushing out, shouting excitedly one of the few words he had learnt: “Papa, Papa” I look back now to the day I found him lying in the middle of the road and think about what I would have missed out on had I kept to my busy agenda and ‘important’ timetable. I would have missed out on helping this little boy who had no-one to call “Papa”.

Update: Craig adds that he contacted at least 20 residential facilities at the time without success. Today Vundy is still living with the family that took him in. He is 21 years old, a grown man, and very much part of the family.

Photo by Nearday