Colorful and Candid, from Cambodia
by Mario Saez, Gr. 5 teacher and ES Service Learning Coordinator
I first learned about Epic Arts in 2008 when traveling to Cambodia and was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, family atmosphere and sense of respect they had for people with disabilities. Their mission was simple - to bring people with and without disabilities together through the arts. This approach is in stark contrast to the treatment of people with disabilities in the country.
Cambodia's treatment of those with mental and physical disabilities can be appalling. Birth defects and illnesses are considered punishments for bad karma from previous lives. Many people in Cambodia still view people with disabilities as something to be ashamed of, resulting in those people being hidden from the rest of society. In many parts of Cambodia, it is not uncommon for people with more aggressive mental and physical disorders to be left chained up at home, in the absence of more humane treatment options and understanding.
Epic Arts was founded in 2001 with the aim of changing this prevalent attitude. Seeing the need in Cambodia, they decided to open Epic Arts Cafe in Kampot in 2006 first, followed by a fully accessible Arts Center in 2009. The center is the first of its kind in Southeast Asia and offers inclusive visual and performing arts classes and education. Today, the organization is mostly operated by Cambodian nationals running the Arts Center, Cafe and developing various courses each year.
Their performance group, Epic Encounters, is active around Cambodia and internationally. Young Cambodians can see and find joy through performers who would usually be ostracized for their differences and assumptions. Fighting stigma and conquering negative responses to mental and physical boundaries requires hard work and support. One such story is that of Po Sakun. Growing up in a wheelchair in Kampot, Po's neighbors told his mother not to waste money and time sending him to school as few job options would be available to him. Po learned about Epic Arts and started studying sign language. In 2011, passionate about their mission, he began as a volunteer receptionist with them before becoming a full-time administrator for them. His story is a metaphor for Epic Arts - through his courage, he overcame economic and social obstacles publicly, loudly, and creatively.
We are proud to welcome Epic Arts to YIS. We believe that bridging cultures and people together makes this world a happier place for everyone. We believe that when they share their experiences and artistic expression with our community we will be amazed by their passion, creativity and above all, by their message of hope and acceptance for all people.
See the trailer of the performance, entitled "Come Back Brighter"