ALUMNI FEATURES •Summer 2001


By Betsy Rogers

Photos by Azaraimy H. Hasib

Alumna Janey Gilkey has spent a lifetime helping children with disabilities. Working around the globe, this occupational therapist has spent the last 18 years helping those in Brunei.

Inveterate travelers leave their footprints worldwide, but surely very few have put their hands to healing work around the globe like Janey Gilkey.

This 1955 graduate from the Occupational Therapy Program at the School of Medicine has been to both poles and all seven continents. She has worked in places as close as Kansas City and as far away as Borneo. She has lived in Hong Kong and Beirut and the U.S. Virgin Islands; she has known the rich and the famous. And through it all, she has carried a mission to help those with disabilities live richer, fuller lives.

Nor is she about to quit, though at age 69 she might well consider that she'd earned her retirement. "I have a lot of energy," she says, putting it very mildly indeed.

 

Because of Gilkey's fund-raising efforts, clinics have new toys, books, and computers for the children.

 

For the past 18 years, she has put those energies to work in the Sultanate of Brunei, a tiny Muslim country just north of the equator on Borneo's north coast in the western Pacific. Here, in the lush and sweltering tropics, Gilkey has built an occupational therapy service virtually from scratch. An arm of the Medical and Health Department of Brunei, the service has grown under her leadership to operate six clinics and provide services for more than 1,000 people a year.

Gilkey was in Hong Kong in 1982, working with victims of cerebral palsy at the Ting Hung Chu School, when she called her travel agent for vacation ideas. The agent suggested Brunei, so off she went.

Visiting the local hospital in the capital, Gilkey asked if the staff included any occupational therapists. Within 24 hours, she had a job offer to start a program for handicapped children. She went back to Hong Kong long enough to resign from her position, then moved to Brunei and went to work.

And work it was. "They gave me a room right behind the hospital's TB clinic," she recalls. "It was terribly dirty—it hadn't been used for ages." So Gilkey rolled up her sleeves and cleaned it herself. There was no equipment of any kind—no furniture, no toys, no refrigerator—but Gilkey was not bashful about enlisting support. From British army wives at a nearby camp, she received money to hire a local carpenter to make tables and chairs. From groups in England and the United States came toys. From the hospital came ice cream, and from both a British pediatrician and the wife of a Shell Oil Co. officer, invitations to swimming parties for the children.

Thus began a long tradition of soliciting support: Gilkey's fearless requests have acquired everything from food, books, and computers to washing machines and buses to hundreds of volunteer hours spent painting, building, and cleaning. Her donors range from American sailors to local philanthropists to regional businessmen to the Sheraton Hotels and McDonalds to Her Royal Highness Pengiran Isteri Hajjah Mariam, one of the two wives of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah.

Reaching Beyond the Capital

Soon Gilkey realized that services were needed beyond the country's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, so she began traveling upriver into the jungle by boat to a village named Bangar Temburong, where there was a small hospital. Though only 45 minutes to an hour away, the trip had its hazards: the boat broke down frequently (14 times on one memorable trip); life jackets were a rarity; and crocodiles, on the other hand, were plentiful.

But the ulu—the rainforest—is gorgeous, Gilkey says, with beautiful nipah palms, winding waterways, and village houses raised on stilts. Soon she was spending one day a week in Temburong, working with "all kinds of children"—cerebral palsy victims, the mentally retarded, youngsters with speech delays, and others. Hospital vehicles picked up children from their homes in the jungle, and Gilkey went by boat to visit youngsters who could not get to the clinic.

 
Young clients enjoy various activities, from physical therapy to elementary education to field trips–swimming is a favorite.

From Temburong she expanded the program to Tutong, also about an hour from the capital. She was given space in a health-clinic building but quickly discovered that it had been used to store insecticides, which had seeped into the floors. "A British woman volunteered to help me, and we scrubbed the floors for three days," Gilkey says. She and an Indian boy then painted the space with donated paint and rollers. "We painted ourselves right out the front door," she recalls. The local people, unaccustomed to seeing professionals perform manual labor, were "amazed."

The local people, unaccustomed to seeing professionals perform manual labor, were "amazed."

Other amazements were to follow. Soon the clinic had graduated to a large donated house, equipped with outdoor play sets, toys, and furniture—all donated. Staff from Brunei's famed Jerudong Park landscaped and maintained the grounds. Other supporters donated a large tent, a building for the tricycles, even the land for an entrance road.

Gilkey's next expansion was in Kuala Belait, where she began offering services in a hospital. Shell Oil donated a Mercedes bus that delivers children to the center and then home again. Shell volunteers help to teach the youngsters.

And to offer therapeutic benefits to even more children, Gilkey opened yet another clinic in Sengkurong, near the capital. This one too had its challenges—there were snakes in the toilets when she first arrived. "We had to call the fire department," she notes. But soon, through the efforts of patrons and volunteers, the clinic moved into its own house. The British soccer star Kevin Keegan donated a carload of toys, and Citibank gave a bus. Computers came from Standard Chartered Bank.

The program for her young clients runs the gamut from physical therapy to elementary education—with donated books, of course. Music is effective therapy for these youngsters, so she has implemented a sophisticated music program in which they write and sing Malay songs. Recreation ranges from riding tricycles to playing with Legos™ to assembling puzzles to frequent field trips.

Her Royal Highness Pengiran Isteri Hajjah Mariam, patroness of handicapped children, takes a keen interest in Gilkey's work, making drop-in visits at the clinics and at the children's homes. In Kuala Belait, she visited the home of three handicapped children; discovering that the roof leaked, she directed Gilkey to have it repaired. She also donated wheelchairs for the youngsters. "She is," Gilkey says with feeling, "a very nice lady."

The royal connection benefits the children in many ways. When His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah marks his birthday each July 15—a national celebration for this much-loved monarch—the children are invited to the Istana Nurul Imam, his palace, for a Hari Raya party. Hari Raya is a Muslim celebration after the fasting of Rhamadhan, and the children receive food, toys, and money.

Putting Service First

Born in Kansas City, the daughter of a pediatrician, Gilkey considered medical school but decided on occupational therapy (OT) instead. She went to Washington University, she says, because its three-year program was the best available.

She began her professional life as director of OT at the Crippled Children's Nursery School in Kansas City, but her love for traveling took her first to Beirut and then, after another stint in Kansas City where she set up an Easter Seals homecraft shop for the disabled, to the Virgin Islands in 1968. There she worked with a community action program.

In 1970 she returned again to Kansas City as the head of occupational therapy at St. Mary's Hospital. But her travels continued, and in 1979 she took a trip around the world. She had heard of an OT opening in Hong Kong; she applied, won the post, and moved there that year. Three years later, she moved to Brunei.

It is, she says, "a very beautiful place," with many rivers, lakes, and spectacular beaches. The sultan is an enlightened ruler, "interested in improving the lot of his people," Gilkey observes. He has built roads, hospitals, and houses for the poor and is working to improve the nation's agriculture.

And in this country whose name means "abode of peace," Gilkey's work has been infinitely rewarding. "People do appreciate it," she says with characteristic understatement. "The whole concept of volunteer work is new here"—so the volunteers who arrive from the United States and elsewhere to flesh out her skeletal staff make a profound impression.

"The whole concept of volunteer work is new here"—so the volunteers who arrive from the United States and elsewhere to flesh out her skeletal staff make a profound impression.

Gilkey has signed a contract to stay in Brunei until 2003. After that, who knows? This indefatigable traveler, who has been to Vietnam and the mysterious ruins of Cambodia's Angkor Wat, who has crossed both Siberia and Australia by train, who has seen Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet, will not stop now. wShe's going to Singapore for a conference on autism and learning disabilities. After Brunei, she muses, "I might go back to the Virgin Islands to do volunteer work."

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.

 

 

 

 

Left: At the clinic in Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei's capital) Janey Gilkey (center) and staff show children the many colors of a Brunei Air Force parachute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her Royal Highness Pengiran Isteri Hajjah Mariam (right) takes a keen interest in Janey Gilkey's work, and she frequently visits the clinics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Field trips to the Polo Club give children the opportunity to pet and ride ponies and horses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Janey Gilkey (right) works with children in the village of Bangar Temburong. She travels there by boat.