Workplace in Wonderland

I’ve decided it’s time to tell you all about the magical place that is Rajanagarindra Institute of Child Development in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I found out about the place from a Halloween party of all things. It was my last art therapy workshop in my volunteering placement. I had absolutely no idea what I would do after the workshop. Enter fate… The workshop was held at The Healing Family Foundation, where mentally-disabled adults create clothing and crafts with user friendly handlooms. Their products are sold at RICD and on this particular day, a woman from the institute was there and happened to be looking for more volunteers. When she heard about my design background she was pretty eager to get me involved in an upcoming project involving a giant pink castle entrance. As you do… There was talk of murals and art therapy also. It seemed like all my random skill sets were finally about to make sense…

So I got her details and proceeded to get in touch with the institute, alas to no avail. However, as luck would have it, the next week I would meet a man who had been involved in elephant therapy for autistic kids. It turned out the elephant therapy was no longer running, but he did know one of the doctors who worked at RICD, involved in horse therapy. So long story slightly shorter, I ended up going on a tour of the institute and decided this was the place for me.

The institute entrance is a giant castle archway on both sides. There are two buildings, one newer one that is actually a giant piano and has an enormous panda bear that has a control room in its head. Of course it does… I don’t think I could do justice to all the awesomeness that ensues within these walls, so here’s a few snaps…



They have a sensory room where kids are stimulated through lights. There’s a really cool bed that is ridiculously soothing. I want to live there. Next door there’s an epic bouncy room. They also have a swimming pool in which they have light projections on the walls and different functions in the flow of water for the pool, with adequate suspensions to aid the kids with various disabilities. There’s basically all the therapies you can imagine… Music therapy, art therapy, drama therapy, acupuncture, a herbal medicine department… They even have a hotel and restaurant upstairs which is a training centre for young adults with disabilities.  And then you have the In Patient unit which is one of my favourite places to be.

In IPD, they teach the kids a variety of skills. Some they prep for school, others they teach their parents/guardians forms of massage to aid muscle stimulation. I’ve started hijacking their pre-school class where I teach arts and crafts. It’s a bit difficult not knowing the capabilities of each child personally and not knowing what to cater for in particular, so it’s basically a lot of taking it slow and trial and error. The firsthand experience is what makes it. I realise that’s kinda what I’ve been prepping for through all those years when I was caring for Mike.

The thing I probably spent the most effort on while Mike was sick was trying to find ways to maintain his quality of life. Each function his body lost was defeating to say the least. I would try to help him see what he still had left, but obviously there’s a grieving period through each stage of the illness. The letting go of the way things once were. And there’s a depression that comes with it. It’s only human.

And as you may have seen from my previous posts, that’s where the petting zoos came in. The makeshift trip around Europe in the backyard. The silly treasure hunts. The picnics in the park with random cupcake decorating. I wanted him to see that we could still find new and inventive ways to be us within all the craziness that surrounded. That yes, life was now much more complicated, but it was still our life. And so whatever I could tailor to his new set of abilities, I did.

His world continued to get smaller. First he had to quit work when he realised he couldn’t do any physical work. Then it was driving. Then it was walking. Eventually it was a struggle to leave the home. Creativity levels were at maximum capacity, trying to think of new ways for us to do things together. I never really thought about it at the time, but I guess that’s what kept me going through everything… Still being able to utilize my creativity. It was an outlet. Something else to focus on besides watching him die.

I felt really out of my element when I first arrived to volunteer at the hospital… For about five seconds. Funnily enough, my first job was to be a translator for the wheelchair department. The first patient I met was a woman who was getting her chair fixed because she had flipped over whilst at home alone. It made me realise how where I had ended up wasn’t so far fetched after all. I’ve only really delved into the art world. Anything in the science realm was way out of my comfort zone. Or so I thought. It made me really think about how experiencing life firsthand is so much more precious than learning from a book. Especially since it’s the opposite to how I like to learn. Countless visits to every type of doctor you can imagine and having to figure out how to get Mike’s body off the ground when he would fall at home, mixed with a bit of empathy for how scared this woman was and knowing what to say to console her made me realise I knew more than I had given myself credit for. It affirmed to me that this is where I’m heading. That my experiences aren’t lost. That they can count towards something new. To helping other people in similar situations. I’m still figuring it all out and don’t know where I’ll end up, but I basically decided on the first day that this is where I want to work. So I made it happen.

Some days during volunteering I taught workshops to the staff to try bridge the gap between science and art. Basically whatever I could do, I did. I bounced around between different departments, getting a feel for the place. I attended a workshop for the staff which turned out to be all in Thai, including workbooks which I couldn’t read and got put on the spot, having to come up with answers to questions I wasn’t quite sure of. But it came with snacks! I went to a conference also and face painted some of the older kids from the Art, Music and Drama department. Another day I got to check out the horse therapy. It was held on an army base, for kids with autism.

There’s something to be said about how special RICD is. There’s even a big playground in the waiting area.  They really work at creating an atmosphere that people want to be in.  And when life can present us with challenges, I think that goes a long way.  Everyone is so happy and caring, such a warm and inviting environment that the pessimist in me almost has to wonder what the catch is. But really, I’m just grateful to have found my way here. So thus far, the plan is for me to keep training up and move into art therapy. In the meantime I’m setting up a bunch of art classes at the institute and getting my face painting business up and running again. My first job is with 300 kids at a zoo. No pressure!


2 thoughts on “Workplace in Wonderland

  1. Claire you are awesome! What an incredible experience, learning and teaching journey for you, I would love to be able to join you one day… Kaz x

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