Paralympians Get a Leg To Stand On, Thanks to Local NGO

Veterans International supports the Sydney 2000 Paralym­pic volleyball team. Literally.

Of the 16 athletes vying for a spot on the Sydney team, 14 are train­ing on artificial legs provided by the NGO’s prosthetic workshop.

“We’ve been supporting the volleyball team since pre-Bang­kok days,” said Larrie Warren, Cam­bodia’s director of the international organization, referring to the Southeast Asian paraplegic games held in Thailand in Jan­uary 1999, where the Cambodia team won a silver medal.

“Before they go [to Sydney], we’ll give them all new legs.”

Money permitting, a 12-man team will go to Sydney Oct 11, and, if no other donors come up with some high-tech alloy legs for them, they’ll all be using Vet­erans International limbs.

“We very much appreciate their help,” said Yi Veasna, director of the National Paralympic Committee of Cambodia. Right now efforts are under way to further equip members of the team, most of whom are victims of land mines. They are a small number of the estimated 70,000 amputees existing in Cambodia, all of whom require some form of artificial limb or brace.

While there are four other NGOs dealing with disabilities, it was Veterans International that provided the support in Bangkok, and will continue to do so as the team struggles to reach Sydney.

All of the legs are made in an efficient, well-staffed workshop across the Japanese Bridge from Phnom Penh. Men and women spend the day shaping, sanding, grinding, smoothing and fitting artificial limbs for amputees—producing around 70 legs per day, among other limbs. Each leg costs $70 to build, though they are donated to amputees.

It isn’t always easy, but it’s a relatively high-paying job in Cam­bo­dia, where the average annual wage is around $500.

Wages at the center run from $150 to $230 per month, depending on training and experience. The high wages mean a very low turnover, Warren said.

“I am happy with my job,” said Hak Veasna, a worker at the center who earns $180 per month carving rubbery hands.

The work, he said while shaping a new hand, requires a lot of concentration.

“I don’t think about any problems with my family or anything,” he said. “I must concentrate like a painter or artist.”

The workshop employs about 90 people with varying skill levels, manufacturing prosthetics, or­thotics (braces, and other personal mobility devices), and wheelchairs.

And while the number of people needing prosthetics is now leveling off—due to demining efforts over the past eight years—the amount of patients needing braces and other orthotics is “doubling our work,” Warren said.

The Paralympics is just a small part of what the center actually does. But to the team, which is still severely underequipped and underfunded, the legs mean a lot.

Legs from the center allow team members to practice at least twice a day as they prepare for Sydney.

But legs aren’t enough. Up until recently, the team was playing with only seven balls, and “two of them are losing air continually,” said technical adviser Daniel Kapplow, who helps coach the team with funding from the Ger­man government. “I have players playing in bare feet.”

The team is more than $40,000 short of the $63,000 needed to travel to Sydney, despite donations from sponsors Mobitel, Caltex and Siemens, as well as money from some government officials.

Air fare and registration fees remain large obstacles, Yi Veasna said.

He was confident, however, the team would make it there.

And no one questions the athletes’ determination.

“I’ve watched these guys sweating away, working awful hard for a long time,” Warren said at a press conference recently. “Until you see them work hard, day in day out, you just can’t appreciate” what they go through.

Warren, who has been in Cambodia for six years, called the team “a powerful symbol of what can be achieved.”

By helping them out, he add­ed, “I think we’ll all be better human beings from this endeavor.”

 

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