Almost a dozen students from the Occupational and Physical Therapy programs at LIU Brooklyn spent their spring break in March helping children with special needs in Belize—a country in Central America with a population of over 380,000 people but without any occupational therapists and only one physical therapist, who happens to be a visiting nun.
It was the first time in Belize for these 11 students in the School of Health Professions, who were either in the Doctorate of Physical Therapy program or in the BS/Masters of Science in Occupational Therapy program, but it marked LIU Brooklyn’s fourth annual trip down there.
The trips are organized by Professor Dale Coffin, Associate Professor and Evening Weekend Program Coordinator for the Department of Occupational Therapy, who’s a native of Belize, and her colleague, Mechelle Collins-Faria, Academic Fieldwork Coordinator and Assistant Professor in the department. They worked in conjunction with the Inspiration Center of Belize, an NGO that provides physical and speech therapy, community-based rehabilitation, basic medical services and social support for the care of children with disabilities up to the age of 16.
“Because they don’t have any OTs in the country, they have a very long waiting list of over 300 children who need to be evaluated and screened,” said Prof. Coffin. “They coordinate that on their end so when we get there, we hit the ground running.”
With a professor on hand, the students split into two teams that rotated between handling patients at the center in Belize City and going to rural villages about an hour or two from the capital.
“We evaluate the kids and come up with strategies that the parents can carry over,” said Prof. Collins-Faria.
“Mechelle and I direct the students to what is the most appropriate type of treatment and what’s feasible in that country,” added Prof. Coffin. “Then we have the students explain to the parents what they need to do and things they should be working on.”
The center also has some field officers who observe what the LIU students and their professors are doing so they can help follow up with practical treatment ideas.
In one village the students encountered a three-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who needed a new splint for her hand and a new brace for her leg. The team had equipment back at the center that had been donated so they asked the parents if they could bring their daughter in.
“The parents were so excited that we could help they came in the next day,” said Prof. Coffin. The girl returned home with properly fitted orthotics. The LIU students had helped raise money for their Service Learning trip on GoFundMe.
Almost every evening back at their hotel, the professors reflected on the day’s activities with their students to recount their experiences with the patients and “see if there’s anything they had trouble with, or anything that we could clarify,” said Prof. Collins-Faria. “They also loved coming back in the evening and getting into that hotel pool!”
The Service Learning trip made some of the students reconsider their preference to focus on treating adults once they get their professional degrees.
“Now they are definitely going to consider working with children because they enjoyed it so much,” Prof. Collins-Faria said.
Next year the professors plan to return to Belize with another team of OT & PT students from LIU Brooklyn who can make such a rewarding difference in those young children’s lives.