Guatemala bound: University of Rhode Island physical therapy students to help children with disabilities in Central American country

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Two-week program offers cultural, clinical experience

KINGSTON, R.I. – Feb. 23, 2015 – Physical therapy students at the University of Rhode Island will soon take their skills – and compassion – to one of the poorest countries in Central America.

During a 14-day visit next month to San Pedro La Laguna in the mountains of Guatemala students will help children with disabilities – and learn how people get by in a country where more than half live in poverty.

Jennifer Audette, of South Kingstown, the assistant professor of physical therapy who is leading the trip, says the visits over the last decade have been so successful URI is now the only group permitted to volunteer at Centro Maya Servicio Integral, a nonprofit that assists about 40 children and teenagers who have physical and cognitive challenges.

“I’m interested in social responsibility and giving students a sense that our profession has a responsibility to people who don’t have as much as we do,” she says. “Students also learn how poverty impacts the lives of people with disabilities.”

The 12 students, all pursuing their doctorates in physical therapy, will leave March 6 and return March 21. Also accompanying the students are: Andrea Mitchell ’01, of Pawtucket, a physical therapist at Performance Physical Therapy; Catherine Stone ’11, of Boston, Mass., a physical therapist at Hebrew Senior Life; and Eric Dunham, a Westerly stonemason and friend of Audette’s. He and the students plan to build an addition to the center. (In the past, the group has built ramps and renovated rooms to accommodate wheelchairs.)

Audette started the program in 2004 as a way to expose physical therapy students to other countries. Students, who pay their own way, receive two credits for a course called “Broadening Experiences.” Most students have undergraduate degrees in kinesiology or exercise science.

The students provide assistance to the one physical therapist at Centro Maya, where many children have spina bifida or cerebral palsy, or developmental limitations caused by malnutrition, a malady that plagues about half of Guatemalan children, one of the highest rates in Central America.

The students also visit hospitals, preschools and other nonprofits working in the country. They make house calls – literally – by visiting families in their homes, modest cinder block structures with outside kitchens, dirt floors and no indoor plumbing.

The trip also includes fun activities – hiking to a volcano, zip lining, eating local fare and a day-trip to the historic town of Antigua.

Cultural biases in Guatemala sometimes make it difficult to treat people with disabilities. Children with disabilities, for instance, do not attend public schools, and it’s difficult for people with disabilities to find jobs. Social programs are scarce for those in need, and buildings and roads often are not accessible to the few people who have wheelchairs, in short supply.

Some progress has been made, but there’s much room for improvement, especially in rural villages. “Guatemalans still tend to hide children who are disabled,” says Audette. “The center has been working really hard to change that, and we’re there to help.”

Audette is proud of her strong bond with the center, developed over the years. “Rapport-building is the most important part. You can’t just go there and leave. It takes a lot of work – and it’s worth every minute.”

For Audette, the country has become a treasured destination. She and her husband, Michael, take their three daughters – Castine, who will graduate with a master’s degree in marine affairs from URI in May; Gwen, studying economics at URI; and Camille, a junior at South Kingstown High School – as often as possible to the country.

“They’d rather go to Guatemala than anywhere else,” she says. “Everything there is an adventure.”

Laura Thompson ’16, of Cranston, and Jessica Arouchon ’16, of Scituate, Mass., are eager to make the trip.

“This is going to motivate me to look for opportunities to help other people,” says Arouchon. “In Guatemala, they are struggling right now. It’s amazing we can go there and give them some of our knowledge.”

“This is a chance for us to give back and integrate into another culture,” says Thompson. “We’ll see how they do things down there, and they’ll teach me something too.”

For more information about the trip, call Audette at 401-874-5625.

Pictured above: Physical therapy students at the University of Rhode Island on a trip to Guatemala in 2009 and 2010 to help children with disabilities. URI’s physical therapy department is in the College of Human Science and Services.

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Audette.