| May 10, 2016 |
The Universe has been working overtime in 2016 to manifest my dreams. I’ve been given an incredible array of opportunities, and am feeling ADVENTUROUS and CONNECTED with the world.
Let’s set the scene. Flashback to somewhere between 2007 and 2011. Picture little KConn in undergraduate college at Stony Brook University:
(Graduation with my #1 supporters – thanks a million Mama and Papa Conn)
Here I am, sub-22 years old, hungry for adventure and travel… but not yet connected to my heart/intuition to fight for my wanderlust desires. Once upon a KConn time, I sacrificed the option to study abroad because of my decision to be a Psychology major and run on D1 Cross Country + Track and Field teams. (Somehow, I couldn’t figure out how to fit studying art history in Florence into my B.S. Psychology. Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve.) I wasn’t going to Italy, London, or Paris for the semester because it would mean more time in school to finish my bachelor’s degree (psh, no thank you). I idolized my peers who traveled to second/third-world countries to provide volunteer services with orphanages and water conservation organizations. I was envious their experiences as they posted photos of grateful smiles from locals and project successes. However, I somehow felt under-qualified to venture on one of these volunteer missions. As a B.S. Psychology major pursuing a career in physical therapy, did I have anything to give? Of course, I knew I would be supported in my endeavors by the organization I chose, but I decided to wait until I was truly READY. I put the mission trip idea on the back burner… for a long time.
In my first year of Physical Therapy school, one of my professors reignited my hunger in a presentation on his travels to Haiti as a volunteer Physical Therapist. He spoke of amputees, disabled children, and the devastation plaguing Haiti after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake of 2010. I was inspired by his ability to influence a less fortunate population, and I knew I would need to carry out a similar mission in my career. I imagined how fulfilling it would be to use my passion for Physical Therapy to service people who may not have access to quality care. I wanted (nay, NEEDED) to find a way to make it happen.
Fast forward to 2016. The Universe decided I was finally ready for a mission trip (HALLELUJAH)! I was invited to join three licensed Doctors of Physical Therapy (DPTs) and 18 students in the DPT program at Northwestern University on a volunteer trip to Tanzania, Africa. Furthermore, I would work with children – a perfect fit for my passion and current specialization in pediatrics. I could not fathom the reality of this opportunity – I would actually be able to use my skill set to make a lasting impact abroad, and my heart and soul were 150% invested in the idea.
I started raising money on GoFundMe to assist with the cost of travel/accommodations, and received overwhelming support from loved ones and friends. [Slight Warning: GoFundMe takes 8% of your funds raised] Before getting to Tanzania, our group received assignments for our volunteer service work based on our interests/experience. We were divided into groups of 4-5 people to intervene at the following organizations in Tanzania:
- Shanga Shangaa: a center for individuals with disabilities, providing jobs and training in artisan crafts using recycled materials.
- Olkokola: vocational training center.
- Plaster House: post-operative care center for children with over 40 beds.
- Pippi House and Watoto Foundation: safe havens for high-risk boys and girls suffering addictions, abuse, and other life challenges.
- Step by Step Learning Centre (SSLC): a non-profit school for children with disabilities.
Edutours Africa did an incredible job of organizing our Physical Therapy mission trip and preparing us for our service positions. I joined two DPT students and one licensed physical therapist (in the pediatric field for >20 years) at Step by Step Learning Centre. A passionate and devoted mother founded this school in September 2005 after being frustrated with the lack of resources for her daughter diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Margaret established SSLC as an inclusive learning environment for children with special needs in Tanzania. Before I knew exactly what would be involved with this assignment, I was honestly fearful. I was afraid I would not be able to do enough for the children, and I would leave feeling unfulfilled. I attempted preparing for the journey through research on the school and surrounding area, but knew I would have to wait until arriving to understand what my role would be. At one point, I was in WalMart purchasing various travel items, and I found myself collecting unnecessary items in my shopping cart. I thought about making adaptive equipment for the kids, and figured it would be a good idea to bring corrugated cardboard, duct tape, scalpels, and wooden dowel nails for construction purposes. I realized, though, that I had no idea what would truly be needed. I knew one of the children was awaiting an adaptive wheelchair (made out of a carseat), but otherwise was not entirely sure what I’d be walking into. I decided, I am enough – my presence and knowledge is what they need.
On our first day in Tanzania, our group was debriefed on general customs in the region and we learned appropriate/inappropriate behaviors. We went over the schedules, and I realized we had less than a week with our assignments. I had NO IDEA how this could possibly amount to any success, and was fiercely doubtful.
This all dissipated when I met Margaret and the Step by Step staff.
It dissipated quickly.
After our first meeting with the teachers, I realized our true purpose as clinicians on this journey. I saw the light, and I had sudden faith that we would be able to fulfill our objectives. Margaret was well prepared and expressed her specific goals, providing Excel spreadsheets on the children she was concerned about. In essence, the SSLC staff was not knowledgeable in various physical disabilities (especially cerebral palsy), and wanted a set of skills to assess a child, and then modify the environment based on the child’s needs. Six children from the class were of particular concern to the teachers, and we were requested to evaluate the children and provide appropriate therapeutic interventions. Before meeting the students, the staff sought to help us understand the background of the school and its students. We discussed the reality of disability in Tanzania and learned:
- Many Tanzanians with disabilities do not end up on record due to decrease hospital/doctor visits.
- Only 5% of children with disabilities will EVER attend school.
- If a child is falling behind in public school, they may be kicked out, which often happens to children with physical/mental challenges.
- Some religions and cultures in Tanzania view a child with a disability as a curse, and will shun/isolate the child.
- Prenatal screenings are few and far between, so mothers don’t know if their child will be born with a disability beforehand (QUITE different from the USA).
- Once a child is born, they will not return to the doctor for up to 3 months for a check-up and, in fact…
- Home births are still predominant.
With these facts, I knew I wouldn’t be able to compare these children and the accessible resources to the patients I work with in Florida. The six children we were assigned to evaluate ranged from 8 to 18 years old, and none of them EVER had contact with a physical therapist. I thought of the importance of early intervention in the United States, and how ages 1-3 are critical to a child’s development. However, as the Tanzanian children NEVER had this option, I knew our interventions were essential to their future potential. We HAD to seek answers and provide effective care.
On our first day with the children, my heart was warmed. They were withdrawn and shy at first, but as we welcomed the children by sharing the posters we drew each of them, I felt an immediate connection. Though most of the children spoke primarily Swahili, we were laughing and smiling instantaneously. I felt incredibly comfortable and welcomed. I felt at home. The room was amplified with positivity and support. As we sat for circle time (part of the morning routine), we sang songs in English and Swahili. I felt particularly touched when one of the teachers extended her arms to us volunteers during a song as we sang:
These are the friends, these are the friends, that the Lord has made. We will rejoice, we will rejoice, and be glad in it.
I could feel the gratitude from the staff at SSLC. We arrived at JUST the right time as a gift to the staff searching for answers. They burned with the desire to understand the children, and give them a better life. I was impressed by the spirit, willingness to learn, open-mindedness, and love that the teachers exuded. In a culture where children with disabilities are often isolated, the staff has given these children newfound hope.
Due to unfortunate circumstances, we could not visit SSLC during our volunteer time. Heavy rains in April mean inaccessible roads, and the road leading to SSLC was too muddy to traverse with any car. We prayed for the rain to hold off, as we were planning to walk along the muddiest 0.75-mile section of the road to SSLC. This did not happen, and we resolved to work with the staff and children at Outpost Lodge where our volunteer group was staying. Of course, there are a million reasons I would have liked to visit the school. Yet, we were able to complete our mission regardless. The treatment area, after a day of treatment (sorry for the mess!):
Our days with SSLC were organized as such:
(9-9:30am) Circle time led by SSLC staff
(9:30-10am) Tea break with the students (“chai” time)
(10-11:00am) First sessions with SSLC students for evaluation, treatment, and education
(11-11:30am) Break, which we tended to skip almost every day
(11:30-1pm) Second session with SSLC students
(1-2:00pm) Lunch break with SSLC students, then the students departed for home
(2-3:30pm) Focused session with teachers
In the limited time we spent with the children and staff, we sparked many little miracles.
We offered insight into a young boy’s orthopedic conditions and bony misalignments due to a condition similar to Osteogenesis Imperfecta. Despite his condition, he has barely seen any doctors, and therefore was a mystery to the staff at SSLC. By awakening to his presentation and discovering effective interventions, he began to stand taller and normalize his static/dynamic postures.
We provided positional options for a “wheelchair bound” child when interacting with peers in the classroom. Rather than sitting in his carseat wheelchair all day, he would be able to play on the mat, or sit in the circle on a staff member’s lap. The wheelchair:
We witnessed a teenage girl open her hemiplegic hand for the first time. Despite her stubborn resistance at times, she used her right hand during all activities by the end of our time together. Previously, it sat idle at her side. She even raised her right hand to pray during circle time. How beautiful.
We facilitated a family to bond over the care of a boy who suffered meningitis. The mother, father, and sister synchronously helped him stand for the first time in 5 years. Together, they pushed past perceived limitations. Previously, the mother carried her son everywhere, and had no concept of potential for progress. This was their silver lining.
The staff from SSLC also grew immensely. The light in their eyes shined bright as they understood the diagnosis of cerebral palsy and its lifelong progression. They applied NDT techniques and soft tissue interventions to the children to organize their bodies and central nervous systems. They positioned children to work on head control and postural control against gravity. Every day, they were hungry for knowledge. They ENGAGED full heartedly with all the sessions with hands-on practice and active learning.
These little glimmers of hope will forever change the lives of these children and their caretakers. On our last day, we met the families and caregivers for the students. Each one stood in front of our volunteer group, thanking us profusely for the time, effort, and dedication to working with their children. They spoke of blessings from above, and how they now see their child in a new light. With this expansion of horizons and knowledge, who knows what beautiful miracles will happen next.
All the groups involved in our Physical Therapy mission trip felt similar successes in their assignments.
We came, we saw… We grew.
The overwhelming love I have for Tanzania is deeply rooted in this connection I felt with SSLC and its team of devoted staff and children. My life is forever changed.
*Photos of children will not be shared to respect their privacy.*
Stay tuned for more Mission Trip wisdom.