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St. John's Professor and Students Volunteer to Ease Suffering of Children in Guatemala

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

For the past five years, children at an orphanage in rural Guatemala have benefited from the expertise and compassion of a St. John’s University professor who specializes in speech disorders. Nancy Colodny, Ed.D., C.C.C.-S.L.P., and her students volunteer there each May to help children whose health problems hinder their ability to swallow.

Colodny, an Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, has made the hands-on experience part of a graduate-level course, Management of Pediatric Dysphagia in a Developing Country. The class represents a collaboration between the offices of Academic Service-Learning and Global Studies. As a complement to class work, Colodny conducts 12 student volunteers to the facility in Guatemala for 10 days every May.

In Guatemala, Colodny explained, the students, who returned on May 30, were exposed to medical conditions and practices they may not encounter in this country. Children at the orphanage are at risk for dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, which can lead to malnutrition, choking and pneumonia. "Our goal is to develop a learning community,” she said. “Our students learn theories and practical applications and serve as role models for correct feeding practices for the hospital’s staff.”

Students often join Colodny for return trips to Guatemala during the year. While this provides a great advantage to the students, she noted that the greatest benefit is for the facility’s patients and staff.
In the midst of their day, students not only assist with feeding, but also change diapers, wash dishes, mop floors and help in any way they can. They also spend time interacting with the children, most of whom have very little human contact.

Several students agreed that while it might be initially disheartening to meet so many children facing complex health issues, there were many happy moments and small victories. Elena Damiani ’14G recalled a nine-year-old boy named Henry whom everyone believed had limited communication skills.

One day, she recalled, "Henry said, 'Hola,' and I was in shock. Then he asked, 'How are you?' in English, and I called everyone over. It was amazing to discover that he could speak Spanish and English. There were other children who couldn't speak as well as Henry, but could communicate in their own way."

Despite their conditions, observed Vanessa Galeano '13G, "The second you interact with them, the kids come to life. All of them are capable of laughing hysterically, and it's crazy how resilient they are. It's very nice to see, and puts things back home in perspective." She hopes to return in the future. "You want to build relationships and provide some consistency. It's so important for the kids to see a familiar face."

"I will remember their smiles forever," said Nina Levine '13G. She added, "I kept thinking that life is different every day for me, but for these kids every day is the same. No matter what we're doing they're probably there sitting in their cribs [with little stimulation]."

"For me,” Damiani observed, “it was a reaffirmation of why we're studying pediatric dysphagia. I love making a difference in people's lives, and this program takes it to a different level."

Since the trips began, Colodny has brought over 800 specialized spoons, therapeutic feeding bottles and a variety of other needed items to the facility. She also has participated in fund raising to purchase special medical equipment such as pulse oximeters and suction machines.
Colodny applauds the University for its extensive support of the program. "The beauty of it is the collaboration between Global Studies and Academic Service-Learning,” she said. “Both offices have embraced the program and have asked me to give presentations. It's wonderful to have that kind of support, and the students feel that as well."