A Summer of Firsts

by Nathalie Angel, Emory UPGRADE Nicaragua

During the summer of 2013, I had the privilege of spending nine-weeks in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua working as an intern at a center for disabled and special needs children and adults.  I received funding through Emory¿s Undergraduate Program in Global Research and Development (UPGRADE) for this Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) project.

The center, Los Pipitos Ciudad Sandino, opened ten years ago and has served over 300 families to date.  Currently, about 60 children, teens and adults frequent the center for physical therapy, speech therapy, computer classes, and various arts programs (piñata making workshops, jewelry-making workshops, dance classes, painting classes etc.).  I was paired with this NGO because of my interest in physical therapy.  Little did I know that during my nine weeks there, I would be working on projects completely unrelated to my original interest.  This internship was undeniably one of the most rewarding experiences I¿ve ever had because it pushed me out of the familiar and allowed me to learn more about myself, while making meaningful connections with amazing people I would have not otherwise have met.

During my internship, I was able to work on a various projects.  I helped develop a coversheet for patient files, which centralized all basic patient information so it was easier to locate.  Additionally, along with the resident physical therapist, I created an evaluation form, which she now uses when she evaluates new patients and re-evaluates them every three months until they are discharged.  I was also able to lead physical therapy sessions for children every Monday and Tuesday mornings, as well as on Thursday afternoons by assisting the physical therapist with patient evaluations.  As a dancer, I was also able to help the center with programming by providing dance lessons on Monday and Wednesday afternoons.  Finally, through a grant proposal that I submitted to FSD, we were able to provide a two-workshop series for parent volunteers at the center to help them with administrative and organizational operations.

Since most families who frequent the center come from low-income, single mother households (where one or both parents did not finish secondary school) it was important for the information disseminated in these workshops to be at an appropriate level.  I was able to collaborate with workshop presenters on this issue, and they were able to provide materials and present information in an interesting, relevant and appropriate way for the parent volunteers.  These workshops were very well received at the center and parents reported that they learned valuable skills that would not only help the center but also help them in their everyday lives.

I cannot begin to explain how much I learned during my time in Ciudad Sandino.  Working in an NGO with hardly any financial resources taught me to be creative in my approach.  Moreover, I feel as though my communication and listening skills greatly improved.  My successful rapport with the parents and members of the community proved crucial in helping them to the best of my ability.  I learned to be more patient and flexible, which was essential since things rarely went as planned.  These are all skills that I believe will help me to become a better physical therapist because they will allow me to work better with people in unfamiliar contexts and situations.

On a personal level, this experience proved to be both humbling and spiritually eye opening.  I believe that I learned more from the kids, the parents and my host family than from anything else and I am so grateful to have made these meaningful relationships while I was there.  They taught me that you don¿t need much to be happy and that faith will take you a long way.  I learned the importance of family and health and how neither should be taken for granted.  I believe that the connections I made there changed me for the better, and this experience has served to confirm my belief in the social responsibility each of us has to give back to the community in our own way, whether that be on a local or global level.

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This experience strengthened my desire to pursue a career in physical therapy.  Even during my short time there, I was able to notice significant improvements in several of the children¿s motor skills with their bi-weekly therapy sessions.  This was extremely rewarding to witness especially among a special needs population, which is very much stigmatized in the country of Nicaragua.  Therapy assists these children and individuals to become physically autonomous and independent, simultaneously serving to empower them.  In the social context of Nicaragua, this empowerment was extremely valuable in helping these children develop physically, socially and emotionally.  I had never thought about the empowerment that physical therapy can provide to individuals until I experienced it myself in this context, but it is an aspect that is very important for the overall development and rehabilitation of patients.

It was a summer of lots of firsts for me.  It was my first time out of the country by myself, my first time working 40-hour weeks, my first time writing a grant, and my first time having gallo pinto (traditional Nicaraguan food I had a least once a day).  There were moments of difficulty where I struggled with emotions of frustrati

on, guilt, and anger, which I suppose were natural given the unfamiliarity of everything and the feeling that my presence was entirely too insignificant to make a change in such a small period of time.  However, if I had to opportunity to go back I would undoubtedly do it over again, even if it were just to meet the people I did while I was there. They treated me wonderfully, kept me safe, inspired me to work, shared their stories and offered me their friendship.  Upon my departure they insisted that they had learned so much from me, but in truth they taught me more about life in just a few weeks than I had learned in the previous 20 years of my life. They have made me a better person and for that I am grateful.

If you are interested in reading more about my summer in Nicaragua and the amazing people I spent it with you can check out my blog, which I updated regularly while I was there (http://desdenica.wordpress.com/).

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