In mid-March, three occupational therapists, six OT students, and a physical therapist will spend two weeks in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, where they will collaborate with Nicaraguan teachers and therapists in a cultural exchange. Students will live with host families in a full-immersion environment, where they will speak Spanish and learn about Nicaraguan culture.
Two Los Alamos OT students in their second year in the UNM graduate program will travel to Nicaragua with the group. Rachel Nelson graduated from Los Alamos High School in 2005. She received a BS in psychology at UNM before enrolling in the OT graduate program there. This will be her second cultural exchange. Previously, Nelson traveled to India, where she created, implemented and taught a social skills program for children with autism.
“International experiences are about what I can learn as well as what I have to offer,” Nelson said. “This experience in Nicaragua will expand my scope as a practitioner. I’m so excited about this trip!”
Breaking down the barriers that keep people from functioning at their highest level is the goal of occupational therapy, she said.
“It extends from social interaction to money management to navigating the physical environment,” Nelson said. “In Nicaragua, we’re hoping to help teachers develop strategies to help students take advantage of education. For example, structuring the workspace differently can make a big difference. Peers can serve as models. It’s more fun to be with kids your own age.”
Another goal is to help parents and teachers understand the different ways people communicate, she said.
“Non-verbal communication and vocalizations by those who don’t speak can be important means of communication for the disabled,” Nelson said.
“I feel that the core of OT is providing support to make sure our communities are accessible,” she said. “So much can be established in childhood.”
OT is a third career for Maureen Barraclough. She worked as a geophysicist before moving to Los Alamos and devoting herself to painting, raising her two sons and volunteer activities such as serving on the Arts-in-Public-Places Board and the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee. She also worked at Little Forest Playschool.
In 2005, Barraclough traveled to Uganda and South Africa to help document the stories of HIV positive pregnant women who were part of a treatment program to ensure their babies would be HIV-free. She lived with a local family
“Your whole life leads up to a major change, but that was the beginning of this path for me,” she said.
Barraclough went on to travel to India and twice to Haiti with medical and social work teams, working as an art therapist.
“Those experiences convinced me that occupational therapy was what I wanted to do,” she said. “I decided to get the academic training to do it professionally.”
Barraclough took her beginning coursework at UNM-Los Alamos and now travels to Albuquerque for her graduate courses.
“I feel like my whole life has been converging on this,” Barraclough said. “I love both art and science and OT combines the two. One of the advantages of working in art in an international setting is that it gets past the language barrier.”
Barraclough is looking forward to experiencing yet another new culture and exchanging knowledge with Nicaraguan clinicians, as well as working with children in Nicaragua.
“We all thrive best when we can participate in the activities that are important to us. That’s what OT is all about,” Barraclough said.
Working with Los Pipitos clinic and Escuela Especial de Amistad, the group will share their skills with children with diabilities and learn from the Nicaraguan staff. This is the second year for the exchange, organized through the occupational therapy program at the University of New Mexico.
Occupational therapist Hannah Bloom, one of the project’s organizers, spent six months living in Nicaragua in 2013, where she volunteered her services and built relationships with local communities.
“I learned an immense amount about how people living in rural areas cope with disabilities,” she said.
When Bloom returned to the U.S., she worked with other professionals and the University of New Mexico to create an exchange program with Nicaragua that is now part of the clinical rotation in pediatrics which makes up part of the curriculum of the two-year OT graduate program.
“Nicaragua is transitioning out of hiding disability to integrating those with disabilities into the community,” Bloom said.
The clinic and school function on a community-based model. Parents are deeply involved with the therapy and education of their children, Bloom said.
Families and clinical professions in Nicaragua “have fought tooth and nail for kids with disabilites to have a public education,” she said. “They want resources and ideas. They want to develop tools to help their students.”
Something simple can be profound.
“One parent told me that our visit was the first time her children were able to hit a piñata,” Bloom said. “It brought them all so much joy.”
“The American students also reap enormous benefit from the program,” Bloom said. “University students are testing their own theories. This is an opportunity to see what works.”
Student can try out their ideas and learn from clinicians with a different cultural background, she said. Occupational therapy focuses, not on the narrow definition of “occupation” as employment, but on the broader definition of the word, how one occupies one’s time. Occupational therapists work with the disabled to help them integrate with the larger community as well as to perform daily tasks more independently. One of the major occupations of children is play, for example.
Lack of monetary resources is a major obstacle for the clinical staff working with disabled children in Nicaragua. The American team works with the staff to create teaching tools out of cheap and recycled materials, Bloom said. They also teach techniques such as infant massage that may not be familiar in Nicaragua.
The group is raising funds for materials and travel costs for the Nicaraguan exchange. For the next eight days, contributions can be made through http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/play-creating-opportunities-for-children-with-disabilities-in-nicaragua. This site also is a resource for seeing photographs and learning more about the project.
After that time, contact Bloom at email@example.com to contribute or to learn more. Bloom also is interested in hearing from clinical professionals who would like to be part of future trips to Nicaragua.