Helping young people with disabilities to feel connected: Oppa's story

Oppa* is 28 and he has been raised in a children’s shelter in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He has autism and he requires a lot of support to engage with activities. He started coming to Skateistan in January 2020 where he could socialize with new people. He said, “I enjoy studying with my new friends and teachers and having fun with them.” However, when the Skate School closed, he still managed to participate in the remote programs and keep himself active.  


His caregiver, who Oppa calls mom, shared the experience she had with Oppa with Skateistan educators. This is something we always try to do when we’re working in partnership so we can understand the needs of our students. This is especially important for students who have disabilities. 


She said that Oppa tends to be quiet and stay isolated when he is not happy. She recalled once there was a party at the children’s shelter, where many of the children are living with disabilities. The other students were having fun, but she noticed that Oppa remained silent and went to his room. So she reached out and talked everything through with him. . She explained that when Oppa is sad, he needs a space to get his feeling back. This knowledge and experience sharing from Oppa’s caregiver was really helpful for Skateistan educators to understand his needs. When we work in a partnership like this (Oppa lives at the Action Cambodge children’s shelter), we can provide a better support system from both organizations, helping people like Oppa to develop and feel safe.


Oppa mentioned that he doesn’t like to do anything but stay alone when he is not feeling happy. However, when he is happy, he becomes friendly, active and kind. At the Skate School, Oppa even made an offer to help others and take care of younger children.


Oppa talked about what he liked to study. He enjoys doing artwork and drawing. He especially likes to draw animals and cars. He also enjoyed skating with his friends and teachers. This is great for us to know because we can then incorporate the activities he really likes into our programs. 


Nevertheless, Oppa shared that at first he was so scared when he went skateboarding. He could not balance himself well when going on board. With his educators’ help, he has learned to skate step by step. He said, “Although I don’t skate well yet, I am less nervous to skate now.”


Over time, his caregiver also noticed that Oppa has become more disciplined. In the past, he struggled to control his behavior when he didn’t feel good. He tried to stay isolated and did not get involved with others. But over time, and with help from his Skateistan educators and his caregiver, this is starting to change. 


Oppa has really benefited from contributing to shared projects between the organizations. One of these projects is making and selling jam. He has helped to  make jams and this has even allowed him to earn some money. Oppa also did a part-time job with the company that produced bottled water. He helped with refilling the water and selling. Oppa shared that he wanted to be a shop owner in the future. He is starting to see that he can fulfill his ambitions, if he’s supported in the right way.


Through working with Oppa, Skateistan educators have also learned a lot. Oppa’s caregiver suggested that since Oppa has difficulty with his cognitive skills, lessons should involve more hands-on activities so that he can be more engaged. And recently she has noticed that our educators have provided very creative lessons that included physical activities with easy instructions to follow. This has increased Oppa’s engagement and enjoyment of the lessons.  


When the Skate School was closed, Oppa was hoping to return so that he could socialize with his friends and teachers again. He said, “I can’t wait to come back to school and skate again.”


If you'd like to give more opportunities to young people like Oppa, please consider making a donation or joining the Citizens of Skateistan today. 


*Oppa's name has been changed.