Changing Lives

It doesn't take a large monetary donation to change a life. In a country where access to adequate health care is hard to come by, even the smallest contribution--whether it's an old wig, a used yoga mat, or just a hug accompanied by a familiar smile--can have a lasting impact.

Maureen Helgren, chair and associate professor of physical therapy, and Tami Reilly, associate athletic director of fitness and wellness, led a student delegation on a trip to Guatemala from July 15-26, 2013 to provide support for local persons with disabilities. The delegation consisted of three physical therapy students (Michelle Wolff, Casandra Oliver and Kristina Bacco), three occupational therapy students (Rebecca Kleiman, Kelly Meara and Stephanie Duperre), medical interpreter Yessenia Argudo and OT adviser Ashley Majeski '10.

The trip, one of many run by the Albert Schweitzer Institute over the past several years, focused more on health and wellness and fostering personal relationships rather than strict rehabilitation.

According to Helgren, the concepts of proper medical treatment and support groups are almost unheard of in Guatemala. "Most Guatemalans have a real fear of going to the hospital. They associate it as the place where you go to die," she said.

As part of the July trip, the group donated 90 used wigs to women undergoing treatment for breast cancer at a hospital in Guatemala City.

"Now these women can go back out to their community and say, 'I went to the hospital and I survived and look how great I look.' Donating these wigs is a little, little piece, but it really could be the little piece that starts to change their idea of what the hospital is," said Helgren.

The professors and students spent most of their time living with host families in the rural village of Joya de las Flores, where they primarily met with families of kids with special needs or adults with disabilities in one-room makeshift clinics or home visits. 

The group has used yoga during repeated visits to Guatemala to empower and teach self-care to locals. In one instance, students designed and taught a chair sequence for a woman afflicted with diabetes who had difficulty standing. 

"We can use yoga as a treatment vehicle because it's so adaptable," said Reilly. "As we keep going back to the same places on these trips, we're really developing relationships with people, gaining their trust, and they're doing the exercises. It's all about making them feel better about themselves and raising their spirits."

The students, who opt to give up a chunk of their summer break to help others, also get back just as much as they give. 

Michelle Wolff '14, a physical therapy student, worked three jobs just to pay for her trip to Guatemala. She said seeing the happy reactions from the villagers and families she worked with made it all worth it. 

"I can always relax on the beach," she said. "This was special."

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