Andrew Richter met a man in Guatemala who is an amputee, can’t walk and at age 25 had to be carried by his family. As a volunteer occupational therapy student from the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., Richter helped to fit him with a wheelchair provided by Hope Haven International Wheelchair Ministry.
“The look on his parents’ face, and his face, when they were able to push him was priceless,” he said. “He’s able to go to church with his family and go on errands. Before, they left him at home because there was too much stress to take him anywhere.”
Richter, 23, of Bismarck, is in the third year of his master’s program in occupational therapy and participated in the University of Mary’s Service Oriented Learning Experience (SOLE). In one project, 20 to 25 physical therapy students and 10 to 15 occupational therapy students and faculty travel to Guatemala annually to serve people with disabilities and other needs.
“Students do anything from building homes, working in a malnutrition center or homeless shelter, fitting and distributing wheelchairs, and doing outreach service in villages,” said Dr. Mary Dockter, director of the physical therapy program. “The children especially have a lot of disabilities from birth defects. Students see a lot of cerebral palsy and genetic abnormalities from poor or no prenatal care.
“In adults, there are traumatic injuries, whether it’s amputations or strokes,” she added. “They are things that you see in the United States, but [in the U.S.], they would be treated surgically or with advanced techniques.”
Third-year physical therapy major Carley Reed, 25, of Spokane, Wash., helped to build wheelchairs for 30 children.
“It was an incredible day watching them receive their first means of independent mobility,” she said. “Many of the families have been carrying their children from the time they were born.
“Many tears of happiness were shed watching their children move their new wheelchairs,” she added. “This experience taught me to be creative.”
One 4-year-old child had such severe hydrocephalus that he could no longer sit vertically. So the team built his chair to be more like a stroller, allowing him to maintain horizontal positioning.
“The service really teaches students to think on their feet,” said Dr. Janeene Sibla, associate professor and director of the occupational therapy program. “They have to apply all that they learned in situations where language is a barrier.”
SOLE experiences also teach students the importance of giving and volunteering their time to those in need, she added.
It was a rewarding experience for occupational therapy graduate student Chelsea Munson, 23, of Bismarck, to work at a malnutrition center run by The God’s Child Project.
“It was really sad to see 2-year-old kids who couldn’t walk, and could barely crawl, from malnutrition and failure to thrive,” she said. “We tried to get them to reach their developmental milestones.”
Many of the children were left at the center because their parents could no longer care for them. They craved attention and physical touch.
“We instantly formed attachments,” Munson said. “We created fun atmospheres for them, and just allowing them to play made a huge difference.”
Physical therapy student Ben Saunders, 23, of Bismarck, also worked at the center, served dinner to the homeless, partnered with professional physical therapy volunteers to serve children and adults and built five houses with The God’s Child Project.
“It was awesome to see fellow members of our profession holding true to the beliefs and morals of serving others in need,” he said. “The experience really emphasized that love and compassion do not have any borders.”
His most emotionally charged experience was when the team turned over a 12x16-foot home to a family, and the father collapsed in their arms as he thanked them.
“These people have not placed their treasures here on earth, but rather their treasures lie in their relationships, their family and their faith in God,” Saunders said. “It was incredible to see this and be in this presence.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.