Creating Magic at The Painted Turtle

For my STEP Signiture Project, I worked as a cabin counselor for three months at a free-of-charge overnight summer camp for kids with life-threatening medical conditions in Lake Hughes, CA called The Painted Turtle. My role was to foster an environment of possibility and belonging for children who have a diagnosis. I collaborated with the medical team to provide routine daily care, and facilitated activities that were challenging yet medically and developmentally appropriate for a diverse group of children.

I can confidently say that working at The Painted Turtle has made me a more empathetic and thoughtful person and a much better nurse. My assumptions on what a medically fragile child can accomplish were completely transformed. I learned through advocating and supporting children with a diagnosis all summer, that children are exceptionally resilient, brave, and intelligent. This whole experience reminded me that even if someone has a life-threatening medical diagnosis, doesn’t mean they have to be deprived of opportunities that summer camp can provide like belonging, adventure, community, and lasting friendship. This summer, I learned how to adapt: adapt a 40 high ropes course and zip line to accommodate children in wheelchairs, adapt to collaborate with a new team each week, and adapt my perceptions of what exceptionally bright children can offer the world.

This summer, I lived in a world where the lofty values of belonging, inclusivity, unconditional love and support were upheld in actuality. In turn, I had the opportunity to support deep friendships among children who, because of their diagnosis, often feel utterly alone in “the real world.” The first time I felt this sense of true belonging through my campers was the very first week of camp. Session One of camp was for children who have dwarfism. Many of these kids have spent their whole lives being stared and being thought of as different. At The Painted Turtle, every kid looks like them, and because these kids share this fundamental common ground, they now have place to shine and a place to call their home. New campers come shy and reserved on arrival day. By stage night they are belting their favorite song over a mic in front of 100 of their new friends and counselors. This is part of the Magic of the Painted Turtle: the place creates a space where all are welcome and kids are the center.

I had the unique opportunity to not only work with kids with a diagnosis, but also alongside counselors who have a medical diagnosis as well. Many of my closest friends from camp were previous campers themselves. The Painted Turtle is special not just because it creates an inclusive environment for campers, but also because it gives adults who have a medical diagnosis a place to empower youth and use their skills to bring a little magic to the world. One example is a good friend of mine who has a type of skeletal dysplasia that limits his mobility to a specially designed power wheelchair. You can catch this friend of mine capturing magic moments all around camp as our camp photographer. My idea of inclusivity has been profoundly and positively altered thanks to The Painted Turtle.

Adaptability and creativity are key features of a cabin counselor at The Painted Turtle. We make the previously impossible, possible for our kids at camp. Kids who are completely wheelchair bound can fly up a 40ft high ropes course and zip-line down. Kids who have never swum in a pool because of accessibility or infection risk, can splash and float with their friends. Kids who have never self-infused their own IV medication, can become one step closer to being independent in their medical care. Kids who have never spent a night away from their parents because of their intense medical situation can grow in independence and self-reliance surrounded by their peers at camp. In order for all this magic to happen, my fellow teammates and I had to get creative by collaborating with parents, doctors, nurses, and child life specialists. We altered routine, got messy, took initiative, and worked with these special kids to create a place where anything is possible.

My passion for pediatric nursing has been reinvigorated and deeply grounded thanks to The Painted Turtle. I will take the lessons of inclusivity, optimism, and empathetic listening with me as I finish my last year of nursing school at OSU. This summer at camp has made me a better nurse and a better person. I have gained skills in collaborating with an entire medical team to achieve a brilliant goal. I feel right at home advocating and working with kids who live with life-threatening medical conditions. I know that I can bring this boundless love and magic to the children and families I will serve in my future career.

Buck-I-SERV Trip to Ghana

For my STEP Signature Project, I traveled to Ghana in July 2019 with Buck-I-SERV. My group and I performed chores at a children’s home that The Akumanyi Foundation had helped establish. The chores and activities we did included mopping floors, cooking meals, bathing, washing laundry, and playing with the children.

 

Before I embarked on this journey, I had no idea of what my stay was going to look like. I thought I had only one expectation—that we would have flush toilets. My assumption was quickly proved wrong, and throughout my trip, situations I encountered turned over more assumptions I did not realize I had. When two little girls grabbed onto me within one minute of seeing me for the first time, I was shocked at their quick trust. I had thought we would need a few hours to gain the children’s confidence. As I cleaned myself each night with a bucket of water and a pail, I surprised myself with how little water I used. When I visited a nice house in one of the nearby villages, I realized that I had created an inaccurate depiction of what all houses in villages looked like.

 

My small realizations added up to form a vibrant picture of Ghana. I saw that the friendliness of the children manifested in others I met. I loved sitting in the window seat of the van on our excursions; every village we passed, people would smile and wave to me and I would do the same. Our coordinator, Prince, told us that Ghanaians had a saying: “You should treat everyone kindly because you never know if someone you’ve helped will be your benefactor one day.” Not only did I experience the welcoming atmosphere of Ghanaians, I was humbled by their patience and hard work in their daily activities. From pounding palm nuts for soup to carrying large buckets of river water on their heads, the Ghanaians I interacted with put dedication and persistence into their work. Still, they knew how to have a good time. Many villages we passed while driving blared upbeat music, and the children at the home loved to dance. I saw that Ghana was truly a beautiful country.

 

When we first arrived to Accra, vendors came up to our car window and said “Akwaaba,” or “Welcome to Ghana.” Though our group received a lot of attention and elicited shouts of “Foreigners!” from Ghanaians, I did not feel like an outsider. People waved to and greeted us with enthusiasm and excitement. Their ability to embrace those with completely different backgrounds than that of themselves inspired me to treat everyone around me with a positive attitude. While I looked out the window during our van rides, I smiled and waved frequently. People always smiled and waved back. On this trip, I learned that smiles go a long way, and allow people who otherwise may lead very different lives connect. I hope to share this friendly form of nonverbal communication with more people on campus this year.

 

Before our trip, many of us had heard of the stereotypes often said about Africa. I had seen advertisements about donating money to feed starving children and save the poor people or comments about how everyone in Africa has HIV. Though during our pre-trip meetings, we watched videos and read articles about the importance of taking an unbiased perspective and being open to learning the full story, experiencing Ghana was the most powerful way to see that these stereotypes could not be more misleading. The children at the orphanage were fed three meals a day for example. As I described above, we passed bustling markets and people happily blasting upbeat music. During one of our group discussions, we talked with Prince and Patrick, our Ghanaian volunteer coordinators. I really enjoyed this conversation because they not only refuted the common stereotypes Westerners have of Africa, Prince shared some of the stereotypes Ghanaians had about America. He said that some believe all whites carried guns and shot people randomly. I found that this comment put into perspective inaccurate generalizations people had about Africa. Though we do have shootings quite frequently, many families in America do not own guns and many more do not condone this behavior. I have learned to be more aware of the dangers of having a one-sided story and to save my judgments for after I have gained more knowledge of a matter.

 

This trip also made me realize my role as a volunteer. I came to Ghana thinking that I was to help lessen the burden on the caretakers at the orphanage. After living at the home for a few days, I realized we created more burden at times. Teaching us how to cook for the kids, carry water from the river, and to clean and wash laundry probably costed the caretakers more time and energy than if they were to complete the task themselves. When I was on mopping duty, the woman who usually mopped stood in the room watching me and would have to correct me or mop the areas I missed. As we passed the buckets filled with river water down our assembly line, kids would pass us with buckets on their heads, walking the whole way to the reservoirs. I quickly saw that our roles as volunteers were more to experience their way of life, to build understanding and respect between people of different backgrounds, and to carry our memories and new knowledge of Ghana back home to educate our families and friends. Our roles were to give happiness, love, and attention to the children and to let them know we care about them and traveled thousands of miles to see them. I doubted that our two-week visit made a great difference in their lives, but I know it changed mine. I learned sometimes we must experience and understand first before we can truly change lives, and this stage is just as important.

 

Throughout our stay, we had group discussions about the “Now what?” part of our journey. For me, I believe Ghana changed the way I view service. I used to think it was necessary to change lives and that I wanted to fix people’s problems. I have realized that to truly serve, we need to stand on the same level as the people we are serving. This means understanding their situation fully, living through their shoes, and refraining from taking one-sided stories as facts. My trip gave me a tiny taste of life in a small Ghanaian village, though I am sure we still lived on the more comfortable side. I think that as an aspiring physician, I will take what I learned and apply it to the way I treat patients. I will always keep the patients’ perspectives close to heart and understand that I am serving them, not fixing them. With this attitude, I can give my patients higher quality of care, the emotional comfort they need, and respect for their individual beliefs or way of life. This trip taught me to be open-minded, patient, understanding, and ultimately to serve. I will carry these valuable lessons into my career and beyond.

Service Reflection

My STEP project with Bridgeway Academy, an early education center for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, included weekly continued service with the AfterCare program and a shadowing opportunity with the Occupational Therapists within the therapy center at the school. This experience provided me with an opportunity to see the impact of therapy on the lives of the students in terms of their regular social interactions, difficulties with their personal goals, and transitioning. This experience also allowed me to see the impact of the application of various therapeutic techniques in order to improve the social problems, behavioral problems, and deficits with fine-motor skills. Volunteering and shadowing within the same setting showed me me how each goal for potential improvement for each child that attends therapy within the school is addressed from both a therapeutic and personal aspect.

This experience impacted my perspective on the client-therapist relationship and showed me how important this relationship is for patient progress. In order for a patient to reach their full potential, it is important for a therapist to develop a relationship to fully understand the patient and help them to develop therapy goals that align with their own future goals, passions, interests. Each patient is different regardless of how similar their diagnosis is to others, and it is important to understand their differences in order to provide the best treatment. Although I fully embraced this experience and am thankful for all of the lessons that it provided, I decided to shadow in other settings with Occupational Therapists simultaneously. This diversity in shadowing settings showed me that I would not necessarily want to work in pediatrics based on my school setting experience and pediatric outpatient setting experience. This is a large change in my understanding of myself and my future with Occupational Therapy. I originally chose Occupational Therapy with the desire to work in pediatrics, so this was an important realization for me as a future medical professional.

There are many aspects of this project that led to these revelations and perceptual changes. Although my volunteering with Bridgeway Academy had been ongoing with Bridgeway Academy for a year, I still believed that there was a drive and a passion within me to work in pediatrics. I have been a babysitter and nanny throughout college, so I knew that I was good with working with that age population. Despite my involvement as a volunteer, I did not fully understand what my involvement in the children’s lives would look like as a future Occupational Therapist.

Shadowing was a completely different experience for me within the Therapy Center at Bridgeway. On my first day I was so shocked that the therapists spent so much time just playing with the kids and not working on any goals or activities. It took me awhile to realize that my first day was each of the children’s first day with the therapist as well. Each therapist had to learn about each individual child’s passions, quirks, and personality in order to develop future goals with the child and their parent. In the past, I knew that the client-therapist relationship was important for treatment. However, I had never actually witnessed the beginning of this relationship, so this was a big takeaway for me.

Each child at Bridgeway is unique, special, and beautiful in their own way, and I am so thankful for all of the lessons that each child taught me. I am thankful for the little moments that are always proven to mean a lot. I am thankful for this entire experience, and I am thankful that this experience taught me more about my passions and skill set as a future Occupational Therapist than I originally thought that it would. My background at Ohio State has been primarily in Psychology, and my experiences at Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital left me more excited for the future than I have ever been. My shadowing at Bridgeway was impactful, but the involvement of neuroscience in stroke patients, spinal cord patients, etc. left me so excited for my future. I decided to include other shadowing experiences this summer at the last minute, but I am so thankful that I did. This little exploration showed me more of what Occupational Therapy has to offer, and it has me looking forward to my future. I loved the various adaptive equipment, therapeutic strategies, patients’ stories, and in-patient setting more than I thought that I would. This project has left me with more of a passion to learn more about Occupational Therapy and a desire to explore all that this field has to offer.

This perspective is very important in my life as an aspiring Occupational Therapist. It is important for me to be open to many different settings and types of therapy. However, it is also important to understand my strengths and find a way to utilize them in order to make me a better future Occupational Therapist. Although I loved my shadowing at Dodd, there may be another setting that would also allow me to utilize my strengths. It is important to have this desire for exploration outside of pediatrics. I was originally stuck in the pediatrics mindset. This project also impacted me as I am applying for graduate schools. These experiences have been transformational, and they have given me material to speak about in interviews. These shadowing and volunteering experiences also helped me to write my personal statement and finish my applications. Despite all of these things, I am most thankful for this experience showing me why I fell in love with Occupational Therapy in the first place. Despite the stress of applications and the unknown future, I am excited, now more than ever, to pursue my passion and dream of becoming an OT.

Volunteering with GVI in Dawasamu, Fiji

  1. GVI is an organization that is based out of South Africa, with bases in over 13 countries aiming to reach site-specific Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, based on the United Nation’s list. An example of an SDG is “Zero hunger.” While in Dawasamu, I partook in many critical activities to work towards meeting our SDGs. The most meaningful experiences to me that I did were related to Good Health & Well Being and Reduced Inequalities.
  2. Through this experience, I gained an island family, a second home, and important knowledge about myself, about the environment, about different cultures, and about the greater world around me. I was put into an entirely different culture on the opposite side of the world, placing my faith into the strangers that I would come to know as great friends over the four weeks I spent with them. I took a huge leap of faith and amounted to what I believe was a great success. I learned how to adapt, physically and emotionally, to the stressors and lifestyle that Fijian villagers lived. I have a sense of direction that I did not have before this trip, and I believe that is one of the greatest things I get to take away from volunteering abroad.

I was able to compare and contrast the domestic public health concerns in Dawasamu with those of Columbus, noting the large socioeconomic disparity between the two and its implications. On an international level, the public health concerns of Fiji are clear to be that of a developing country, facing large numbers of communicable diseases and malnutrition. Unlike the US, which has major concerns with rising non-communicable diseases and mental health disorders. In relation to these comparisons, I was also able to think about additional factors that relate to global public health issues: political unrest, cultural beliefs, socioeconomic factors, and geographical/environmental factors.

  1. I took part in many different activities in my experience in Fiji, which culminate to transform me into the person I am today. I helped to build a greenhouse to be used at the primary school as a Kitchen Garden, as well as weeded, overturned, and began the planting process for the Kitchen Garden. The goal of this was to provide lunches for the children in the school, since they often come empty handed. This allowed me to have a sense of cultural understanding and global citizenship as I was able to think about the needs and ways to come up with a solution to something like the lack of food.

Every Wednesday, I attended the Dawasamu Nursing Station and gave presentations and one on one education for a “Mothers and Babies” workshop, educating mothers on childhood nutrition and the importance of breastfeeding. This transformed me into thinking about the diseases that affect people globally, especially in underserved areas. Things like malnutrition that aren’t very common here are prevalent in Fiji. My communication and critical thinking skills improved as I faced a language barrier and had to come up with a way to educate mothers that would be learned and understood. Using the district Nurse’s information, I also created pleasing, readable, and understandable First-Aid slides to be given to Community Health Workers (CHW) in the District (15 total). Again, this is an example of how my critical thinking skills were improved, but I transformed here in the sense of teamwork as me and my peers worked together on this project. I also went to the villages of Silana, Delakado, Deliyadua, and Mantainananu to educate families with each village’s CHW. This was done by house-to-house visits where we discussed in each home how to prevent common communicable and non-communicable diseases, as well as good sanitation practices and how to recycle. This was hugely transformative for me in becoming more adaptable: I immersed myself into people’s homes, communicated with them, and had conversations about healthy living. With patience, one house after another, we were able to get to four villages.

One of my favorite activities was when we innovated a new method of reporting data and information that allowed CHW’s to keep track of the necessary patient information, documents, and statistics to give to the Ministry of Health in order to receive payment. This goal was realized after completing a needs assessment with one CHW, which became openly advocated for by majority of the CHW’s. The result became a workbook for each CHW, containing both logs of pages formatted for recording inventory and first aid usage as well as pages on what workshops and house-to-house visits had been done and with whom. Logbooks were created for volunteers to keep track of each village’s CHW progress, needs, accomplishments, and personal development plans. This allowed us to empower the CHW with having the confidence to teach their neighbors about prevention strategies. It is through this activity that I gained real problem solving skills after coming up with a solution to an identified need, while also developing leadership skills. I voiced my opinion and was able to create this project to work on.

Overall, assimilating to the culture of Fijian life and taking an active role in my family that I was assigned to by helping them on their plantation, eating meals with them, etc. made me culturally observant and flexible, immersing myself into the Fijian way of life.

  1. This change is valuable to my life because it has allowed me to realign my career aspirations in the field of public health. After graduation, I plan to join AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps to gain long-term experience being an “ambassador” in another community and taking on a role that gives me more leadership opportunities. From there, I hope to go back to school to either get my MPH, or attend Medical School. After furthering my education, I would love to eventually end up working for the United Nations or the World Health Organization on improving Global Public Health.

This experience has showed me the importance of SDGs and the positive impact that implementing these goals on a struggling community yields. I now have a sense of direction for the future that I didn’t have before. I am grateful to have been able to have this transformative experience and become a global citizen. The time I spent in Fiji gave me a new perspective of the world we live in, allowing me to narrow my future goals and get one step closer to where I want to be.

Making Success Accessible

For my STEP project, I organized an opportunities fair aimed to serve the needs of the lower-income and homeless populations in the city of Columbus. I work at a homeless youth drop in center called, The Star House, and I see what kind of opportunities the youth who access resources, are craving to have for themselves, their families, and their kids to make a better life. The “Making Success Accessible” event was aimed at providing them with tools to empower themselves and build a sustainable life path. Vendors, non -profit organizations, and many other resources were invited to attend this event to offer their services to the community.

The change I experienced as a result of my STEP project was two fold. I recognized passions I had and saw how with the support of OSU, my passion was put out there and was able to impact so many. I also recognized how deeply rooted institutionalized oppression exists.

This opportunity helped me further evolve into the social change and social justice creator I aspire to be. I got to organize an event that impacted a community that is so close to my heart and as I continue to work at the Star House, I get to still see the impact this bridged gap has had. I had many fears and reservations about such an event – I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to the communities expectations let alone mine, and I was most fearful that it would not be impactful at all. However, the experience of having to push through those fears and take risks has shaped me tremendously. I have come to realize that working in these demographics, everything is a gamble, everything is trial and error. I had to learn to be okay with making mistakes and learn to take criticism for the betterment of others. In planning this, I had to realize it wasn’t a one man show, I had to let others in – others that were more knowledgeable about the needs of this community, more knowledgeable about trauma informed care, etc. This experience has catalyzed a growth in me that I know I will take into the work place and into life.

From serving racially and financially marginalized groups, I was aware of the presence of institutionalized oppression. However, after being so immersed in what their needs are and how they are not met for so many bureaucratic reasons – this became a matter that affected those far beyond the Columbus metropolitan area. It opened my eyes to the radical changes that need to happen in our governments ability to lift those who are struggling, it opened my eyes to see how it is the responsibility of every human being who can, to lift their brothers and sisters and offer the best resources they can, not just the resources they don’t want or need. I learned all that, but also maintained and strengthened the understanding that the first step is each individual person wanting better for themselves. Unfortunately my eyes were opened to situations where, there were good people and compromising circumstances, and their options were limited and the path out of poverty would be nothing short of tumultuous. Seeing the gravity of these issues, heightened my passion for a social justice driven career path.

At Making Success Accessible there were 34 vendors of various kinds, some offering GED help, insurance help, healthcare access, transportation, childcare, resume help, etc. As the sole person planning this event I had the liberty of identifying resources I thought were important to have access to in order to ensure a less bumpy path towards success. I was forced to make tough decisions, I learned to believe my intuition and believe that I was capable of such a venture. I had to find a suitable venue, and ideally one that costed little to nothing. I then had to ensure it was within code according to Columbus to host such an event that would attract so much foot traffic. I had to identify resources that aligned with the mission I had for this event, and were willing to be flexible with their services to bridge the gaps to provide what the attendees need. I had help from many experienced staff at the Star House about what needs should be prioritized. The skills I developed having to build this event from the ground up and the independence and trust I had to have in myself made me better leader and prepared me for my aspirations to be a creator of change.

Making Success Accessible was an event with a particular mission to bridge the gap of access for those who were seeking a path to success. Communicating that to vendors and providers was important for the success of this event, as it was important to have a unified understanding of what the purpose and priority of this event was. I consistently made sure to communicate and understand what kind of services the organizations were willing to offer and how that played into the scope of overall success. Communicating with leaders in non profit organizations where your passions align can be a magical process but it became clear that time and efficiency was of essence. It was necessary to outline how much of one resource an individual would receive, and it was necessary to outline guidelines/ contingencies for those who were receiving these resources. Not only did I refine my communication skills in a professional setting, I developed the skill of deliberating and cooperating to come to one unified decision.

I really wanted this event to exceed beyond the day itself. I wanted it to serve as an educational opportunity for the community and for the vendors and providers. It was important that I and all the vendors and providers better understand the specific needs of our communities and how they can be met, and it was important that the community understand what exactly is out there to help them reach their full potential. It became glaringly clear that one way to combat the institutionalized oppression is to institutionalize an understanding of what each human being deserves and what their options are to get there. Education is the stepping stone to all things tied to success, and that isn’t necessarily book education – learning about what specific resources you are eligible for is the first step towards utilizing them to get back on your feet. The community becoming educated on what is going on around them is equally as important, because without the continued support of the community, the people at the bottom will not rise.

This was an impactful experience for me because of my career aspirations in social service. I want to be a clinical psychologist, and I want to work specifically with youth that have experienced trauma. A huge part of working in social service fields is the interdisciplinary nature of care that each patient will receive. It is important, when part of such a team, to understand all the social, mental, biological, and physical factors that play a role in someones mental struggle. Gaining the support to hold an event such as this one, has showed me the pure genius behind interdisciplinary care, but has also showed me all the ways I want to refine it through research.

Service Learning in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

         

           For my STEP project, I traveled to Guanacaste, Costa Rica for a service-learning experience. I lived in a home-base with fellow volunteers. I volunteered mt time in a local daycare preparing daily lessons to teach to the children, providing attention and companionship to all, teaching new songs and dances, and assisting the teachers with anything they needed such as serving breakfast and lunch.

            As I have matured into the adult that I am today, people have always told me that I am a natural leader and a very independent person. I believed this to a small extent, but since I had lived in the same place for 21 years, I thought I had just mastered living in Columbus, Ohio.

This trip was my first time flying alone and only my second time flying anywhere. I immediately felt very independent as soon as I left my family in the airport. My connecting flight went smooth, but the final flight over to Costa Rica was where my independent nature really shined out to me. As the flight neared Costa Rica, the crew notified the passengers that there was a pothole in the airport’s runway and that our flight was being diverted to a Nicaraguan airport. I did not really think of this situation as more than a minor inconvenience. I figured my flight would just land a few hours later than it was originally planned to do. Unfortunately, the airport had no internet or service, so I had no way of communicating with my family or the staff that was picking me up at the airport. I was able to stay calm as our rolling delay was becoming longer, and longer. Soon approaching four hours of sitting on the aircraft, the crew came on the speaker notifying us that they were making us stay the night in a hotel. Still unable to communicate with anyone, I was a little nervous. I also knew that Nicaragua was not the safest place to travel, but I was hopeful in myself that I would be just fine. Upon arriving in Nicaragua, the hotel staff were very friendly, but I was still having trouble getting connected with my family and the staff trying to pick me up from the airport. The hotel staff did not speak a lick of English and they were unable to understand what I was asking when I was asking for help trying to call my loved ones. I finally got a few minutes of internet connection on my phone, long enough to contact my parents and the staff waiting for me at the airport. Other than that, I was all alone, in an unsteady country, with no means of communication, with a few strangers I had recently made friends with on the plane. I was impressed with how calm and levelheaded I had remained through this whole situation. I sat down by the pool that nigh to relax a little when another young woman who was also traveling alone sat down next to me and said “You know, we’re pretty awesome.  Think about how brave and resilient we are traveling alone and being thrown into this situation and not even flinching. We are strong.” I hadn’t really thought about it until that moment. That conversation allowed for me to reflect on myself and see how independent I truly am. Because of this conversation, I have noticed myself, in Costa Rica and back at home, being less fearful of times when I need to do thing by myself because I know that I can handle anything that life throws at me.

Another value that I came to truly see in myself from this trip is leadership. I had been varsity soccer captain, leader of a mentor group for college students, leader of a group for young girls, and on the executive board for a club at my university. I had been a leader my whole, life I just didn’t really feel it. The daycare setting was stressful in Costa Rica. The language barrier was really holding me back. During my first week, I felt as if I wasn’t making any impact on the people around me. One night, I was thinking about the daycare and evaluating my feelings of frustration. I decided that since I was having a difficult time communicating verbally, that I needed to find another way to communicate. I figured my best bet was to be enthusiastic with my body language and facial expressions. This immediately started to work. I felt as if I was making better connections and relationships with the kids. I kept doing this for the remainder of my time in the daycare with the always-changing group of volunteers. During my last week in Costa Rica, the president of the program came up to me and thanked me for being such a great leader to all. He said he appreciated how enthusiastic I was and keeping the morale high. He mentioned that I was a great teacher to all the new volunteers coming in each week and that I showed an awesome example of how they want their volunteers to interact while at their service site. I thanked him for his nice compliment and then I did not really think much of it after that. The next evening, I called my mother to catch up and tell her things about my trip. I mentioned the compliment I received the previous day. She stopped me and said “Erin, do you understand how awesome that is?” I sat back and thought about it more deeply. Then I realized, wow, I am completely out of my element, in a different country, speaking a native language, with people I have never met, and my leadership skills still shine to others around me. I was dealing with being homesick, having anxiety, and not feeling good while traveling, as many do, and I was still able to have great leadership qualities. Out of all my leadership experiences, I think that this is my best one. I think this because I wasn’t even trying to be a leader. I went to Costa Rica with the mindset that I was just there to help and learn of a new culture. I wasn’t trying to outshine anyone or take control of any situation, my natural personality trait allows for me to show as a leader to others.

Traveling abroad was eye-opening in many ways. Observing and living in a new country was a great experience and it was fun to compare the United States with Costa Rica. Some of my favorite conversations were with local people about their cultures and exchanging conversations about my culture. The conversations usually ended up in a lot of laughing just because some of the things we do is so different from each other! From these conversations I realized that most people living in Costa Rica are fluent in Spanish and English. Most people are unable to get jobs if they are not also fluent in English because they have so many American visitors. I was so shocked by this. I think that this is something that Americans should also do. I think it would be very beneficial for Americans to be fluent in another language because it would encourage Americans to travel to new countries and encourage more people to travel to the United States. I think one reason why so many Americans travel to places such as Costa Rica is because their native people speak English, which makes it easier for people to communicate and explore their country. Tourism is a huge economy for Costa Rica. I talked to many natives that go to college and learn skills to work in a place of tourism. Natives of Costa Rica value tourism. They love learning from every tourist they encounter and the enjoy showing them the beauty of their country. I think that learning another language such as Spanish would allow for a new appreciation for diversity in the United States. Not only would it allow for a growth in economy for the United States, but I think that Americans would learn so much about other countries from the tourists and learn to love and show off the country they live in, just as natives of Costa Rica have.

One evening in while I was visiting Costa Rica, my friend and I were walking around in the central square of Santa Cruz. We encountered a group of young men and we started conversing with them. My friend was fluent in Spanish and one of the young men was fluent in English. We had a very long conversation with them that night. It was great to have fluent speaking people in both languages because everyone could be included in the conversation with translations. We talked to them about politics, food, school, relationships, family, jobs, and so much more. Both groups learned a lot that night about a different country. After this meaningful conversation, I concluded that it is so important to be able to communicate with as many people as possible. Those young men had no idea they were going to run into us Americans in their local park that night. If they couldn’t speak English, we wouldn’t be able to communicate and learned everything we did.

These realizations of my independence and leadership qualities will help me as I finish school and prepare to attend graduate school for occupational therapy. I will need to exemplify these qualities in all my applications and interviews. Schools look for these qualities so that they can ensure their students are above and beyond. Independence and leadership are qualities that all occupational therapists should boast because they are always working with an integrated team of medical professionals. They need to be able to share ideas and defend treatments for their patients. I think that my recognition of these qualities will allow for me to be successful in my future career.

Becoming more culturally aware of the world has always been a personal goal for me. I think that my trip to Costa Rica was a good way to dip my feet in the waters and has boosted my desire to travel and learn of more countries. Upon returning from Costa Rica, I aspire to learn and become fluent in Spanish. Then I would love to travel to other Spanish-speaking countries and learn of their culture. I will now be able to compare their lives to what I have learned in Costa Rica. I think that this will allow for me to live a humbler and fulfilling life in America. All these insights I have acquired on my trip to Costa Rica will better my life in my school, career, and personal life. I would not have been able to do this without the help of STEP and I will always be grateful for the transformation I have undergone during this experience.

The Painted Turtle Camp

For one week in Lake Hughes, California, I was a cabin counselor for 17-year-old girls with chronic or life-threatening illnesses. As part of the oldest cabin, we worked with the youngest cabin (age 7) to guide our girls to become future leaders. An average day consisted of many different activities such as fishing, canoeing, crafting, working in the wood shop, and swimming.

To start the week, we did a lot of ice breaking activities to allow the girls to get to know each other. As the week progressed, I realized more and more things about myself and others around me. I quickly learned that being a counselor to 17-year-olds came with great responsibility. The role entailed more than making sure they had fun and be safe but rather to create future leaders. I learned a lot from them as to how much young women are capable of. They inspired so many people around them including campers, counselors, and other staff through big and small moments.

One moment that touched my heart throughout this experience was when this incredibly shy girl from the youngest cabin got up on stage and danced in front of the whole camp. This happened towards the end of the week after the girls helped build her confidence. Not only were the counselors touched by this moment, but the girls in our cabin were in tears to see someone so shy come out of their shell. This goes to show how much influence the young women in our world have. Something as small as dancing on a stage proves that this girl watched our cabin dance on stage, and she wanted to do it too.

Another moment that drove the change about my view of the world was when one of our campers, Izzy, helped her friend, Marie, play a game. This may sound incredibly simple, but this small act created a huge wave. We were standing in a circle playing a name game where you had to say your name and your favorite dessert, the next person had to repeat what you said and add on their own. The last person to go would have to repeat everybody’s name and favorite dessert. When it was Marie’s turn, she had a hard time repeating the desserts because they were all so similar. Izzy was patiently standing right next to her and when Marie was out of ideas, Izzy stepped up and carefully helped Marie. Izzy did not just give Marie the answers she was looking for; she was trying anything she could to get Marie to guess. She would sound out the desserts, describe them, act them out, etc. all on her own initiative. No one had to ask her to help, she just did it. This simple moment was one that made the biggest impact on me and other counselors. This showed me how a little patience can go a long way.

The most important moment of this camp experience happened at a campfire, exclusively with our cabin. This was the first time that this campfire was ever put into action, but I am sure glad it did. On one of the last nights of camp, we told our campers that we had something special to go to, but they did not know what it was until they had a blindfolded walk to the campfire. They had to hold onto each other’s shoulders and follow the lead of a counselor’s voice as she spoke about how being a leader is about trusting others and sometimes letting others take the lead. Once they got to the campfire, they discovered all of the counselors, Pun, and s’mores. Pun is an older gentleman, a volunteer, who comes to almost every session, every summer although he does not live close to the area. He has known these women for almost as long as they have been coming to camp. After his inspirational talk about how much these women mean to him and how much they are going to achieve as future counselors, our campers shared their experiences at camp and how nervous they were going into camp their first time, but how it now is home and a place they feel safe. I did not have much to add to this conversation, but with just listening I could tell how much magic is in The Painted Turtle camp. Pun stated that if they ever need to come back to camp, they should “close your right eye, close your left eye, open your heart, and you will be back at camp”.

I never had doubts as to how much young women could achieve; I just had not seen it in this light. Watching all of these moments unfold with women with chronic or life-threatening disabilities show just how much impact they can have on others, and me. Learning about the women’s struggles just to see how much they give in return shows tremendous strength. I hope to do this in the future while pursing my career path in audiology. I will listen to patients and their families to understand what they are seeking. Some families may be seeking resources to enhance the learning for their child who is deaf, or some individuals may be seeking hearing aids/cochlear implants to enhance what they can hear to be able to communicate. Others may just need someone to talk to. I hope I can support individuals in the future by being courageous, patient, and kind, just like our campers.

Project Reflection

For twenty five short days I was able to travel to two of the most gorgeous countries I have ever been to, Australia and New Zealand. During the trip I was pushed out of my comfort zone with activities like sky-diving, eating kangaroo, and even just getting on a plane ten different times. The project, through the activities, pushed me to discover the child in me again, take risks, and create everlasting relationships with twenty one other individuals.

For me personally I felt this trip allowed me to find myself more. After two years of college where I felt lost, on this trip I was able to feel sure about myself and reassured with where I am in life. I was able to appreciate the child in me, and know that it is okay to take time and embrace those moments where you just want to surf some waves instead of laying on a towel like the other adults. Spontaneous received a whole new definition on this trip. Suddenly putting guac on my chipotle wasn’t crazy but jumping head first into a glacier run-off river was. I assumed I would always have a place as the play it safe kind of mom of the group, but mama jumped out of a plane.

As for my view of the world, that has seen monumental change. I have only ever been out of the country one other time and that was to Guatemala. I expected poverty, as it was a mission trip. This trip to Australia and New Zealand had no preconceptions. In traveling there i have found a much greater appreciation for proper recycling and other ways to lessen my carbon footprint. These countries are not wasteful, and they make America look incredibly negligent with their care for our Earth. The countries also showed me kindness. I had never been somewhere where everyone around me cared whether I was lost, or hurt, or even if I was just having a good day. It is comforting to know that in other parts of the world people still show common courtesy and care for one another on a daily basis and not just for a short thirty second clip you watch on facebook.

Being able to appreciate the child in me was something that throughout the trip was brought up several different times. The activities on the trip in general were fun, but even in our down time you would find us playing games or being weird. There were times we stayed off our phones and only talked to one another. We were kids again who only cared about who we were going to pick on at lunch, and what fun activity we were going to do after lunch. For my group and I we discussed our childlike wonderment in several different activities, such as surfing, snorkeling, and white water rafting. Some of my favorite days on the trip were just getting to get out on the water and have fun with no responsibilities. The only care was if I could find nemo, how many times I was going to fall off the raft, or if I was going to be able to catch the big wave. Responsibilities were nonexistent, and having fun was the only goal. 

As for my transformation as a risk taker, I can almost pinpoint that moment. About two days before our first free day In Cairns, Australia I put my name on a list to jump out of a plane. I expected bad weather, as the radar was calling for it. That day though I woke up to a sunny sky, and my name on a list for skydiving. Afraid of planes, heights, and speed, I laughed my way up in denial nineteen thousand feet where I jumped out of a plane. The most amazing experience of my life, just a few minutes long. After that I was not the same person, suddenly the fear did not matter. I had conquered my greatest fears, and boy was I rewarded. Miss. play it safe was no more and since then I try to carry that spontaneous, risk-taking mentality into my everyday life back in the states.

Lastly my outlook on the world was influenced every day I woke up. I reused the same ziploc for the tenth day in a row to pack my wrap for the hike that day. I said “g’day” to every hiker I passed and asked them how their day was. When the group inevitably got lost, a lone hiker would assist us as we played with their friendly off leash dog. The countries cared about one another and most importantly the Earth they walked on. They seek out all the ways they can protect their environment, and take time to appreciate it. Everyday I turned my outlets off before I left I was reminded that the Earth is appreciated by this part of the world, and I can take that outlook with me to the states and make a small difference in the people around me, just like they did for me down under.

As a future teacher, it is my job to educate the minds of tomorrow. I like to think that I will be able to instill more than just knowledge about math and reading in my young kids. It is my desire to foster a love of learning and discovery in my students. I want them to start thinking about different parts of the world and strive to visit them. I hope to share my travels, and inspire them to step out of their comfort zone. As for the environment, I think that all begins with proper recycling education and I think it begins young. This trip is valuable to me because it has put a spotlight on the changes America needs to make in order to become more environmentally friendly and I think that starts in the education of young children. I will definitely take the time to weave awareness of the environment in the curriculum and make sure that children have an understanding of the monumental impact they can make.

Childlike wonderment is something all teachers should have. You are the adult, and the boss of the classroom, but most importantly you are the child’s confidante. Ultimately you decide whether a student loves school and wants to stay in, or whether they hate it and drop out. Being able to take the time for fun in the classroom is a difficult idea for today’s educational climate. Test, test, test is all these kids do. Taking time to be a child with them and have fun is something that will help me in my professional life, and will be my goal everyday in my future job as a teacher. I am incredibly grateful for this trip, and all it has instilled in me. If I could, I would do it all over.

 

Sustainable and Resilient Tanzania Community

I completed my STEP signature project through the Resilient and Sustainable Tanzania Service Learning program. During Spring ’19 semester, I studied Swahili with a class of mostly civil engineering capstone students and worked on the engineering projects that we would eventually implement in Tanzania. We spent the month of May in Tanzania accomplishing tasks that will lead to cleaner drinking water supplied to the Maasai communities surrounding the Pangani river outside of Same, TZ.

 

I experienced many perspective shifts while abroad. I had only traveled outside of the United States once before, so my direct contact with foreign people IN a foreign place was limited. I had learned a lot about Tanzania from the pre-travel class and my own independent reading, so I had a surface-level familiarity with the country and its culture. I knew that the lives most people lead there are different from Americans. What I came to realize was that I was more often surprised by similarities between people in the states and in Tanzania than differences. People faced similar hardships and were just trying to make happy lives for themselves. There was no shift in that human agenda. I noticed that jobs, entertainment, family life, socializing, etc. simply took on different forms there.

 

I spent most of my time in rural Tanzania. My exposure was kind of limited to an agriculturally centered society and economy. The full scope of Tanzania ranges from farming towns you’d similarly encounter in the U.S. to sprawling cities like Dar Es Salaam. We spent some time in Arusha, the large city in the Kilimanjaro region. That being said, most people in the small town I was in were extremely nice. Not that I wasn’t expecting them to be nice, but the citizens were outwardly amicable, which is something that I wasn’t used to. It felt nice greeting everyone you pass by, and I hope to bring back some of that sentiment to strangers here.

 

A considerable worldview shift I experienced was the cultural importance of family history. The group of people that you trace your history back to and secondly, their geographical location is significant. It isn’t a divisive trait – it accompanies a sense of pride for where you come from. that I don’t feel as strongly present in America. Occupationally, many jobs funnel through agriculture. It seemed like everyone grew or raised something even if they didn’t consider themselves a farmer. The main street through the town was constantly busy, and travel is an important part of daily life. People would have to travel on foot, on motorcycle, packed into buses, etc., precisely for work, not just to get to and from work, which is something I wasn’t used to seeing. It made me see the appeal of lots of movement for work. Sure, a lot of time can be wasted just moving from one place to another, but the activity and spontaneity and lack of corporate offices was really nice and is the sort of environment that I would want to work in, on a smaller scale. People are also resourceful and found creative solutions to problems we take for granted in America. Your roof sprung a leak? Just fix it! Here in the states we would call a technician who specialized in repairing roofs. The need to be handy isn’t the same nor is the accessibility to services like that. It made me realize that a lot of innovations in engineering are a result of satisfying a “need”. Since being home and starting a new internship, I have tried to approach my daily tasks with similar creativity and admiration for resourcefulness.

 

I made many good friendships with my teammates on the trip. I learned their motivations for studying engineering. Hearing their testimonies helped me better understand my own motivations for studying engineering. I also developed a lot in how I work with others, like when to speak up about the direction of a project, deliberating tasks, going through data together, etc. I think a big reason we worked well together was due to the nature of our work. We were all contributing to a good cause, and so conflict didn’t really surface as we knew it would prevent us from accomplishing this wonderful thing. I aim to make it into a similar work environment when I graduate, surrounded by people who believe the work being done is meaningful and good. I also came to know quite a few University of Dodoma students who are jointly partnered on this trip with us. Listening to their accounts of why they became interested in humanitarian work made me optimistic about facing a lot of the world’s problems with providing people with essential human needs, like clean drinking water.

 

GIV Thailand, Community and Healthcare in Ban Nam Khem

While I was in Thailand, I was involved in several different types of projects. Most of what I took part in was teaching English to kindergarten-aged children at both a local village school and a private school. In addition to that, we performed free health assessments and measures throughout the village. Lastly, me and other students spent our time engaging with children/adolescents with disabilities at the Camillian Center. Our time there was focused on creating games and learning activities for them to take part in and enjoy. There were many other things we were involved with regarding conservation as well, but the focus of my trip was mainly education and healthcare.

Before I had gone on this trip, I had a lot of experience with traveling across the globe. From the Caribbean islands, Europe, Latin America and many places here in the U.S., I had been fortunate enough to experience all those things. And by then, I thought I had seen it all. However, my time in Thailand and my first time in Asia was a lot more different than anything I had experienced before.

Before I had done all those things with my family, but this was my very first time traveling outside of the country on my own independently. At first, it felt very overwhelming and gave me a lot of anxiety. I ran into a lot of problems with my flights and was left with my own devices in many situations because I did not have an international call plan to ask my parents for any kind of help. But, on my own I was able to conquer these road blocks and it was an extremely liberating feeling. That kind of feeling lasted with me throughout the entirety of my time in Thailand.

Aside from traveling independently, there were a lot of things I was able to learn about Thailand, the culture and society from both the team leaders in the GVI program but also from the other students and adults who were also taking part in the program. Not only did I learn just about the Thai culture, but I learned about other people’s global experiences and what it is like to live a day in their lives.

Despite the learning curve I faced with independently traveling and doing all these other things on my own, the last paragraph of my response to question two is what stuck with me the most. Upon arriving in to the village Ban Nam Khem where our program was based, we spent the entire first day learning about the village, culture, customs, etc. surrounding Thai society. We also learned that in 2004 there was a devastating tsunami that completely disrupted Thailand in its entirety and is still recovering from the emotional impact, physical and economic tolls it brought on to the people there. The village of Ban Nam Khem lost an estimated 60% of its known population following the events of the Boxing Day Tsunami. It brought a lot of attention to me the kind of value that is placed behind life and how we sometimes take that all for granted. And I will never forget some of the discussions I had with some of the villagers who were there during that time. Learning of the tsunami and about GVI’s sustainable goals for this region of Thailand also helped solidify my understanding of why we were doing what we were doing. It fulfilled my sense of purpose and made me feel like my contributions were extremely important, impactful and meaningful.

The children that I spent time with both at the schools and Camillian center was also an experience of its’ own. As someone who wants to go into rehabilitation and work as a physical therapist for people with both congenital and developmental disabilities, the Camillian center provided me a great experience to learn more about disability. Something that shocked me was how disability is viewed in Thailand, and it is not even remotely the same as it is here in the States. In some respects, disability is seen as an embarrassment or even a curse placed onto a family. And people with disabilities are not given much of an opportunity to exist outside of their disability which I find extremely heartbreaking. One of the things I was fortunate to participate in was a 5k run that helped raise money for the Camillian center and bring awareness to disability. That it is a fact of our lives and not something we should concern ourselves with disguising or running away from. Us students with the assistance of our program leads were able to create fun activities to engage in with the Camillian kids. I always looked forward to my time at the center each day because I was always overwhelmed with positivity, excitement and joy with these kids and the other students. It was hard to say goodbye to the kids there and I was glad to feel like I was able to make an impact on their lives.

The last thing I want to talk about was the people of GVI itself. The Community and Healthcare leader, Billy was an amazing resource for us as we planned out lessons for both the English classes as well as Camillian. He was extremely friendly and personable. Among him was another Community leader, someone who is Thai and is from the community herself. Her name was Gay and acted as a liaison between us and the community. She is an extremely pivotal pillar to the program. I was able to become close with both Gay and Billy and both have left long-lasting impressions on me that I will hold very dearly. Gay helped immerse us in Thai culture by giving us Thai lessons each week, so we could better communicate with the people around us. It felt good being able to attempt to break the language barrier and not be a typical American tourist. Billy’s background and how he got to Thailand doing what he does served as a form of inspiration to me. Being able to do something like what Billy is doing over there in Thailand is admirable and makes me hope that one day I can have the time to do something the same.

The totality of this trip is just almost too much for words to describe for me, but I will forever be thankful for everything it gave me!

This program really resonated with me for several reasons. I learned a lot about the world and Thai culture and there were a lot of things that helped shape my world view and perspective. I have a very succinct group of life values that I try my best to follow each day and this trip helped me solidify those in ways that I will never forget. A quote that I found during my time there that will forever resonate with me, “never stop learning because life never stops TEACHING.” Not only that but some of what I was doing translates really well into what I want to do with my career. Again, as someone who wants to work with disability in the future, this is an incredible experience for me. It gave me insight into different aspects of disability. Both in its physical form but also the social and societal pressures of disability that exist. As a disability studies minor, I was able to apply a lot of knowledge I have gained over the past semester in a real-life setting and seeing all of that manifest together was truly enlightening. Hopefully one of these days, I can go back and visit the village of Ban Nam Khem and reunite with the people there that I hold near and dear.