Program Founder Shares how Buds to Blossoms Program Helps Children

A young program filled with volunteers is meeting needs being otherwise unmet for disadvantaged children in Vietnam and Cambodia.  Many of them are orphaned because of AIDS in their families. asked Buds to Blossoms founder and President Les May to explain the reasons behind his uniquely focused pediatric massage program. Here is our conversation:

Buds to Blossoms Volunteer Riffi O'Brien
Photo courtesy:  Les May
Q: Of all the places in the world where children are suffering, why Cambodia and Vietnam?

A: "These are countries in which HIV and AIDS carry a heavy stigma. Children and adults there who have HIV commonly experience rejection by their peers and severe discrimination in education and employment.

These are also developing countries in which AIDS relief programs and resources have always been insufficient to meet the need. AIDS relief resources are being shifted out of these countries both because of the global funding crisis and because infection rates are lower in these countries than in parts of Africa that are harder hit. This trend is making things more challenging for people with HIV and AIDS in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Buds to Blossoms Volunteer Urara Taoka
Photo Courtesy:  Les May
At specific orphanages in these countries, I and Buds to Blossoms' other leaders saw a need for the program we offer, and we had the personal and professional connections and language skills needed to conduct programs there. There's quite a bit of research and development involved in putting together a program like this, so it makes sense to do it not only where there's clearly a need but also where we already have the resources to facilitate things."

Q: How did you get started on this mission?

A: "After having worked as a massage therapist with adults for five years, I felt an inner calling to study infant massage in order to learn to help babies. While searching for a teacher, I found the website of a woman named Suzanne P. Reese. On her website (, I read how Suzanne had helped transform the lives of severely neglected Belarussian orphans with birth defects by providing them with massage and nurturing attention. When I read about Suzanne's work, I realized what I'm meant to be doing is providing care to children in need and creating opportunities for other people to do the same.

I took Suzanne's infant massage class and other teachers' pediatric massage classes. I began designing pediatric and infant massage programs serving disadvantaged children after studying with Suzanne."

Q:  Why massage?

A: "Massage can boost the immune system and relieve pain and stress. These benefits are particularly important to children with HIV and AIDS.

Massage can also be a way of giving orphaned children the one-on-one attention, nurturing touch and communication they need for optimal health, well-being and development. Without the help of volunteers, it can be difficult for orphanage staff to find time to meet these needs."

Q:  Your website says someone doesn't even have to be a professional massage therapist to join the program as a massage volunteer?

A: "Basic massage techniques can convey all the above benefits to children, and such techniques are easy for people to learn quickly in our orientation meeting and during volunteer program activities.

By the end of their third day in the Buds to Blossoms program, our volunteers have had far more hands-on experience providing massage to children than people typically get in pediatric massage and infant massage certification programs in America. The volunteer program is, among other things, a great way for people to learn about massage with children by doing a lot of it."

Q:  What sort of improvements are you able to see?

A: "Occasionally there are dramatic recoveries that seem attributable, at least in part, to the work of the massage volunteers. For example, we once saw a child with a disability rapidly regain the ability to walk over the course of a week of daily massage sessions in which volunteers helped increase the range of motion in her legs and encouraged her to have confidence she could get out of her wheelchair.

But most of the time, it's hard to isolate the physical effects of massage from the effects of other factors like diet, medical treatment, and so on. The changes that are easiest to attribute to the work of the volunteers are changes we observe in the personalities and behaviors of the children and adults we work with.

When we first started the program, it was very common for the children where we work to display violent and invasive behaviors toward each other and the volunteers. Adult orphanage staff would even subject the children in their care to such behaviors on a regular basis. There would be something on the order of a hundred incidents per hour during massage activities.

Now that we've been working with the same children and adults for nearly 3 years, such behaviors occur with far less frequency and severity than they used to. It's clear this is due, at least in part, to the work of the volunteers. During massage activities, the volunteers model nurturing touch and communication and gently but firmly discourage children and adults from acting out violently. We suggest alternative behaviors like gently massaging each other or the volunteers.

Some children and adults respond to the volunteers' input with immediate and lasting behavior changes. Others need more time to learn gentler ways of interacting. Over time it's been easy to see that all the children and adults we work with have become much less violent."

Q:  You not only organize volunteers to visit the area and provide massage, but you also train local caregivers in massage?  How does that work?

A: "We're gradually building a small team of local people who will regularly visit the children and provide massage while our volunteers from abroad are not in Cambodia. This team is currently training by participating in the massage work activities we conduct at the orphanage every few months. We'll have a teacher who specializes in a particularly nurturing and gentle form of massage give the team some lessons early next year.

We're building this team by hiring young women from disadvantaged backgrounds and providing them with a good wage that enables them to lift themselves and their families out of poverty and malnutrition. For example, we've hired a woman who lives in one of Phnom Penh's slums, supporting a family of six beside the garbage dump where she grew up as a rag picker. She loves her new job helping children in need close to her community and is thrilled to finally be able to put good meals on her own family's table on a consistent basis."

Q:  Some, if not all of these children must be terribly hurt and fearful.  How do you develop trust?

A: "We ask each child's permission to give massage and respect their answer. This helps communicate that our touch is safe and that we believe the children have the right to choose who touches them, how and when.

Children who decline our offers of massage can spend time observing and interacting with the volunteers in other ways. This gives them the opportunity to notice our touch is safe and wanted by other children and to become comfortable being with the volunteers. All the children have eventually ended up wanting massage."

Q:  How do you assure a safe environment for the children when bringing in outsiders?

A: "Volunteers' personal and professional references are checked, and their criminal records are reviewed. The volunteers work in a directly-supervised environment where the program leader and orphanage staff can see what they're doing."

Q: Your website mentions the very low risk of a volunteer contracting HIV/AIDS even though the children they'd be helping could be HIV positive.

A: "HIV can only be transmitted by certain body fluids. The only one of those fluids there should be any chance of being exposed to in the context of pediatric massage is blood. Exposure could occur if blood were present on the skin of the massage receiver due to an injury. The skin is an effective barrier to transmission of HIV, so a massage therapist simply touching an infected person's blood doesn't pose a risk of infection, unless they contact that blood with an injured part of their skin or put a finger that touched blood into their nose or eye.

In order to eliminate the risk of getting an infected person's blood into your body in the context of massage, you just need to make sure you've used a waterproof bandaid or glove to cover any damaged skin you find on parts of your body that will touch the massage receiver (your fingers, hands, wrists, etc). Before doing massage you should also look over the body of the massage receiver to see if there's any blood (that should be cleaned up by a qualified medical practitioner) or unhealed wounds (that you should avoid touching during the massage).

Even if a therapist were to get the blood of an infected person into an injured part of their skin, according to the website of the CDC, they'd probably have less than a one in a thousand chance of getting infected. (See"

Q:  This work requires a very special type of person, doesn't it?

A: "Our work mostly relies on one's ability to be nurturing. This is a capacity nearly everyone has, so in that sense, this work is suitable for most people."

Q:  Do you see Buds to Blossoms expanding to other places or very focused in this one locale?

A: "We might expand in the future, but for now, our organization is small and needs to remain geographically focused on two or three countries."

Find more information on this program, donate or volunteer at Buds to Blossoms.

Therapist Volunteers for Healing Cambodian Mission

*This blog is not intended to provide medical or safety advice of any kind.  Seek professional advice if you have questions about disease transmission and health.

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