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Improving the Lives of Children: A-State Graduate Takes Her Passion for Pediatric Care to Vietnam
story by Cody Moore, photos submitted

Jonesboro’s Candice Dunbar has taken her passion for pediatric care overseas to Vietnam, where she spends her time working to improve the lives of special needs children through The Kianh Foundation and her own cause, Skillful Play Therapy.

Dunbar began her journey at Arkansas State University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in exercise science in 2008 and a doctor of physical therapy degree in 2012.

“My time in Arkansas State’s Physical Therapy Department opened up the world for me,” said Dunbar. “My degree is how I am able to travel and seek those with the most need.”

Dunbar worked at several pediatric clinics around Jonesboro and Memphis upon finishing school. She gained experience working with children while at A-State, but she didn’t expect to find her dream career through those opportunities.
“I never thought I would work with children when I started on my career path,” said Dunbar. “I always thought I would help disabled veterans. I will never forget my first day working with the kids at that clinic in Jonesboro. Their impact resonated in my heart.”
Just three years after graduating, Dunbar received a job offer that she didn’t see coming; she was offered a position working with the U.S. Navy as a pediatric physical therapist in Okinawa, Japan. This position allowed her to work closely with deployed families and special needs children.

“I felt profoundly honored to work alongside those men and women serving for our country,” said Dunbar. “It’s heroic what sacrifices they and their entire family make to get the job done. I think if the rest of America could see the same things and have the same difficult conversations with the mothers and fathers of military children with special needs, they also would want to do more.”

Dunbar and her husband, Patrick, lived in Japan for three years until her contract with the U.S. Navy came to an end in March 2018. Before her contract ended, Dunbar began searching for a new cause to become involved with in order to prepare for their next move. After visiting Vietnam for the first time on a four-day jungle trek, Dunbar fell in love with the resourcefulness and sense of humor that the country and the people portrayed.

“I did a simple online search for pediatric therapy in Vietnam and came across Jackie Wrafter’s story on how she started The Kianh Foundation 17 years ago,” said Dunbar. “I emailed The Kianh Foundation my resume immediately and asked if I could come help. A short while later, Jackie herself actually messaged me back and the first thing she said was, ‘You do know that we can’t pay you?’ She went on to say that they could certainly use my help, and the rest is history.”

The Kianh Foundation is one of the only schools in Vietnam that makes special needs children the main priority, giving them access to a proper educational atmosphere and daily physical therapy. This isn’t a common thing for special needs children and families to have easy access to in Vietnam, unlike in the United States.

“Vietnam is 50 years behind the U.S. in their ability to care for and educate children with special needs,” said Dunbar. “In the U.S., we have had laws in place since the 1970s that allow for free and appropriate education for all children in the least restrictive environment. This is profoundly important and is one of the many things that makes our country so wonderful. We should never forget this.”

Funding for the couple’s six-month stay in Vietnam then became the main topic of discussion since Dunbar would not be getting paid for her work with The Kianh Foundation. Dunbar noticed that the U.S. Consulate General of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam was calling for grant applicants that were performing different projects for minorities in Southern Vietnam. She saw this as an opportunity to receive funding for her work and quickly began writing her grant.

“The Kianh Foundation’s project for community outreach for children with special needs aligned so perfectly with their call for proposals that it didn’t occur to me that we wouldn’t get funded,” said Dunbar. “When we learned it did not get funded, I was devastated. I had a heart-to-heart with Patrick, and together we decided our personal venture needed to continue because that was what our hearts were telling us.”

Once family and friends heard about their upcoming move, they suggested the two start a Go Fund Me account in order to receive help from anyone that would donate to them. After much consideration, Dunbar decided to do just that.

“Most of the donations are from our parents and closest family and friends,” said Dunbar. “We understand that we couldn’t be here without their help, and in supporting us, they are supporting the time we are able to give the children here.”

Once the two officially moved to Hoi An, Vietnam, in April 2018, Dunbar immediately started working as a trainer for the local therapists and staff at The Kianh Foundation while also serving as a physical therapist for the children. Dunbar works heavily with a translator, who is always at her side to convey the therapy lessons with the local therapists and children.

“There is very little, if any, qualified pediatric therapists in many different parts of the world,” said Dunbar. “Educating children with special needs is unheard of in Vietnam. Usually, they are kept at home with a family member who then cannot work. That is one less income for the family and perpetuates a cycle of poverty in this developing country. The Kianh Foundation changes all of that for these children and their families.”

Shortly after beginning her time at The Kianh Foundation, Dunbar started a cause of her own that she calls Skillful Play Therapy, where she believes a child’s only concern should be to play. This cause will allow her to document her experience helping children in other countries, all while raising awareness for children in need.

“My long-term goal with Skillful Play Therapy is to start a teletherapy service for families with young children living abroad,” said Dunbar. “The whole idea came to me after seeing the vast need for a more unconventional approach to helping kids with special needs living overseas with their families.”

Once Dunbar’s time with The Kianh Foundation reaches an end in October 2018, she will return home to Jonesboro. Though she will be back in her home state, she will still be consistent in her search for Skillful Play Therapy’s next traveling destination.

“In the future, we hope to consult with other nonprofits in developing countries,” she said. “I am the Skillful Play Therapist, and I plan on being around to help others wherever they may be, for as long as I live. For me, success is being in a position to help others, and I hope I can continue to do just that.”

To keep up with Dunbar’s journey in Vietnam and to see where Skillful Play Therapy is headed next, follow Skillful Play Therapy on Facebook and Instagram. For more information on Vietnam’s The Kianh Foundation, visit kianh.org.uk.