Breaking Barriers: Students Embark on Service Learning Trip to Guatemala

News Story: December 12, 2013

Continuing Sacred Heart University’s commitment to service to others and engaging the world both in and outside the classroom, five occupational therapy graduate students from Sacred Heart University took part in an international service learning trip to Santa Maria De Jesus Village in Antigua, Guatemala in October. The trip was an interprofessional excursion with students from the university’s physical therapy and nursing programs.

Not only did the journey prove to be inspiring for the heart, but it also offered an enriching experience. The students had a chance to share their practical knowledge and use their education and techniques to help those they encountered.

While there, the students evaluated and treated youngsters and adults who suffer from a variety of issues requiring treatment. These ranged from various diseases to birth defects, deformities, spinal chord injuries, cerebral palsy and developmental delays. The group also distributed sneakers to children at a clinic in Santa Maria de Jesus—many of whom visibly lacked shoes that fit them properly.

“The trip comes ahead of their field work in the second semester, and I am always amazed at what they know and what they gather from the trip. It really is a valuable experience for them in many ways,” said Professor Jody Bortone, chair and director of the Occupational Therapy Department at Sacred Heart. “It’s truly a hands-on experience and opportunity to serve others who are very much in need. It’s really profound because those they are serving in Guatemala have rarely, if ever, had access to any kind of rehabilitation or any kind of early intervention. Their conditions are much different than you would see in the United States, because many have never received any kind of rehabilitation services, and they have vastly different health needs.”

Master’s student Danielle Nicoletti described the experience as a memorable time that allowed her to grow in her chosen field and strengthened her desire to work with other underserved populations. “I now have clinical experience working one-on-one with a patient,” she said. “I was able to evaluate and provide treatment for the first time, and my confidence has increased drastically.”

Nicoletti said that working with an interdisciplinary team with other physical therapy and nursing students allowed them to “share our knowledge and come up with interventions together, broadening each other’s views and skills.”  

Another highlight for Nicoletti was engaging with a world-wide organization called Hope Haven International (HHI), a group that aids people with disabilities. HHI receives donations of new and used wheelchairs, wheelchair parts, raw materials, financial support and other items.

“We had the chance to fundraise before the trip so we could donate the chairs and then had the opportunity to build and fit the chairs to 24 children,” she said.

In addition, the OT Capstone group identified a need to develop a pictorial manual on how to prevent pressure sores and how to use the wheelchairs they were given.

What was the most memorable moment of the trip for Nicoletti? “It was when a little boy who had never walked before and had to be carried everywhere propelled himself for the first time in his brand new chair,” she said.  “The smile that was glued to his face reminded me of why I am so excited to become an occupational therapist, and for the first time I truly felt like I made a huge impact on someone's life. The feeling is indescribable. 

“I also quickly realized after coloring, teaching tooth brushing, providing new shoes and fitting wheelchairs that pediatrics is a population I am passionate to work with. I am overly excited for my level 2 fieldwork placement in an inpatient pediatric setting,” she added.

Kelly Sasso, another occupational therapy student who made the journey, also sited the powerful experience at the Hope Haven wheelchair factory as a memorable portion of the trip. She said over the course of two days, they had the chance to fit about 30 children for wheelchairs, many of whom are orphans.

“Observing them using their wheelchairs was as mesmerizing as it was rewarding. Several of the children were able to propel their chairs with their hands when we were done, and the smiles on their faces were irreplaceable,” she said. “We were able to play with and interact with the children in ways that they may not get on a daily basis, and every thank you and smile was genuine. One little boy was telling us that he could not use his right hand, and after just a few minutes of stretching the hand, he was able to play with a tape measure with both hands at the same time. He was so excited. It’s amazing what we could accomplish with so little resources and so little time.”

For Sasso, a second-year master’s student, distributing the sneakers at Santa Maria de Jesus was also a powerful moment. “We gave one little boy a pair of shoes that had a heel that lit up when he walked,” reflected Sasso. “When he finally saw the lights, his face lit up, too, and he ran around the facility stomping his feet and showing everyone his new shoes. We coined the term the ‘sneaker smile,’ because the smiles on their faces were like nothing I’ve ever seen. Clean shoes and clean feet are something that we take for granted here in the United States.”

Sasso candidly admits she had reservations about her skills during the initial portion of the trip, but that quickly dissipated and her confidence grew. “This experience is something that I can always look back on and reflect on in my future practice, and I have developed critical thinking skills that I can apply to my clinical fieldwork coming up in the spring,” she said.

Nicoletti and Sasso’s travel was partially supported by a generous gift from Ellie and Lorie Weinstein. Lorie Weinstein is a former SHU faculty member and Ellie is an occupational therapist.  The Weinsteins created an award to offer support to two occupational therapy students each year who engage in international service learning or fieldwork.

The other three OT students who participated in the trip were Stephanie Madonna, Audrey Novak and Franly Rosario.