Friendship leads to overseas study, Therapists Without Borders
UIC students get the opportunity to practice occupational therapy overseas, and children with disabilities in Lima, Peru, are the beneficiaries.
This happy circumstance is the result of a friendship that began more than 20 years ago between Yolanda Suarez-Balcazar, head of the department of occupational therapy in the College of Applied Health Sciences, and Liliana Mayo, founder of Centro Ann Sullivan del Peru, when both were earning doctoral degrees at the University of Kansas.
In 2006, Mayo visited UIC’s OT program and the two women started talking about developing an exchange program for students and practitioners.
Suarez-Balcazar noted that the center in Lima, named for Helen Keller’s teacher, has no occupational therapists among its professionals, “but they do have student exchanges with a few other universities.”
“We wanted to be included — to offer this great opportunity to our students,” she said.
The center started in 1979 in Mayo’s home, as a school for five children with developmental disabilities. It has grown into a globally recognized program serving more than 450 children who have disabilities such as autism, behavioral disorders, intellectual, sensory and physical disabilities and developmental delays.
“Eighty percent of the kids who are eligible to work find jobs in the community,” Suarez-Balcazar said.
UIC students began visiting in 2008. Since then, 12 students in occupational therapy or disability and human development have taken part in the immersion experience.
There are now three UIC students at the center, with three more planning to go in October.
Last fall, the two departments launched Therapists Without Borders, where experienced practitioners spend a short period working at the center.
Participants, besides Suarez-Balcazar, included Joy Hammel, professor of occupational therapy, Robin Jones, disabilities and human development project director and instructor, and OT student Carson Mumma.
The team spent a week working with five children and their parents on participation, accessibility and mobility. They showed more than 50 staff members how to develop low-budget adaptations to increase student participation, taught university students from Peru, consulted on several projects and ran a workshop for 350 parents on healthy lifestyles.
“It was an incredible experience,” Suarez-Balcazar said.
“We see the effect of what we’re doing and how much we are learning at the same time.”