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Sycamores to provide therapy services in Haiti

February 1, 2017

There was a time when modern conveniences like the computer at Meg Ladyman's office in Indiana State University's Sycamore Center for Wellness would have fallen under the category of can't-do-without.

But that was before the assistant professor of occupational therapy and occupational therapy clinical director was approached by a student about opportunities for Sycamores to put their skills to work in Haiti.

The inquiry led Ladyman in 2015 to the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, where she spent nine days working with the therapist at The Meriam Center in Saint-Louis-du-Nord in northwest Haiti, about a five- to six-hour drive from the airport in Port-au-Prince.

"When visiting another orphanage back in Port-au-Prince, a worker asked if I would come back again and bring supplies and training to help these kids because they don't have the education to do that," she said.

Ladyman answered that call. In March 2016, she returned to Hope Home during spring break with six of her students in tow, including Chelsea Dause, Danielle Hobbs, Pam Lemperis, Katrina Antonio, Amanda Criste and Audrey Ortiz.

A smaller group, including Ladyman, Dause, Maggie Bannigan, Lori Henderson who is an occupational therapist from Florida, and Rosie Flammang who is an DPT from Connecticut Children's Hospital, will return to Haiti this March to volunteer for a week at New Life Orphanage, which served as home base for the last trip while the group worked in Port-Au-Prince.

"Meg pitched last year's trip to us as an Alternative Spring Break trip. We thought it was awesome idea and were onboard," said Dause, of Williamsport, Ind., who graduated in December. "We boarded a plane with 12 suitcases of supplies and donations, in addition to one carry-on item per person. I had done service before, but last year was my first mission trip. I went as a second-year OT student with little hands-on training, so working in Haiti gave me a feel for the evaluation process and the work involved in coming up with treatment plans with little resources."

The group departed from New Life Orphanage in Port-au-Prince each day around 9 a.m. and traveled two hours to Hope Home, where a new school was under construction and expecting 30 to 40 students with special needs.

They spent nearly seven hours a day conducting evaluations for about half of the students to determine what accommodations were needed to aid them with everything from vision issues to cognitive skills.

With items they brought from home, the students set up sensory stations to incorporate into the children's special education curriculum.

"When I was growing up, my mom was a special education teacher, and I always enjoyed helping in her classroom and working with kids with special needs," Dause said. "It helped me see that I wanted a skill I could use to help people and it drew me to occupational therapy."

Haiti is a country of 8 million people, including 1 million orphans, and occupational therapy services are in demand.

"We tried to accomplish something in a week that will make a difference in people's lives long after we leave," Dause said. "From a personal standpoint, I saw my compassion for my patients go through the roof and learned to care for others in a way that I did not know was possible. These were people I barely knew and people I may never see again. Working in Haiti gave my work even more purpose, because I got to see just how much it can benefit others and improve their lives."

It is a welcome sentiment for Ladyman, who watched her students' initial hesitation melt away as they put their skills in motion.

"I'll never forget that look on their faces when we first walked into the special needs house at New Life," Ladyman said. "(The students) were overwhelmed because they had never been around kids with such severe disabilities, but it didn't take them long to warm up and fall in love with the kids."

The group performed evaluations at the orphanage all day before traveling back to Port-Au-Prince each night to write up evaluations and treatment plans. Trained in cardboard carpentry and how to build equipment before they left, the group spent their nights making walkers and equipment out of PVC pipe.

"We didn't stop until midnight, but I never heard a student complain the whole time we were there. Not one," Ladyman said.

It was a small price to pay for Dause, who saw the extent to which her Indiana State education can impact the quality of another person's life. It's a lesson that will serve her after she graduated in December and prepares to start her career as an occupational therapist with Team Therapy in South Carolina.

"While we stayed at New Life and got to know the kids there in our off time, we really didn't get to put our full efforts into their special needs home. By the time we got back there each day, we would be up until midnight coming up with treatment plans, then go to bed and get up the next day and do it all again," she said. "At New Life, they don't have a school or rehab techs to do the therapy and the kids need more frequent therapy. That's why we decided to come back to New Life this time, complete evaluations and come up with treatment plans."

It was hard work and long days, but an experience that radiated with the importance of serving others.

"I hope they see that they can use their skills above and beyond what they do on their jobs," Ladyman said. "I've worked as an OT for several years and I love it, but there's also something pretty spectacular about volunteering with other professionals and the camaraderie and team work goes to a whole new level. When you're not getting paid but instead paying to be there and learning from phenomenal professionals, it's an experience that you take with you forever."

Ladyman is proof. Next to pictures, diplomas and books, she keeps a small dish of mud cookies from Haiti on the corner of her desk as a reminder of the work still unfinished.

"They sell (mud cookies) in the markets to very poor people, who give them to their children when they're hungry but don't have enough food. It's made of mud, oil and salt, but it helps their stomachs not to growl and makes them feel like they're eating something. It's pretty sobering," she said. "When you learn about things like that and then come home, everything seems so extravagant - being in my office, driving my car, going to Starbucks and the grocery store. You just realize the abundance here, and sometimes the waste, so for me I find that I think about things more now before I buy them and contemplate if I could use my money for better things?

"I remember sitting in my recliner at home when I got back and my TV didn't work. I thought, ‘I'm going to have to call the cable guy and get that fixed.' Then I paused," Ladyman said. "That money could be used to provide healthcare and education for three kids in Haiti. I did get the cable fixed but cut down the package. Then I got involved with several organizations and just became a volunteer child ambassador for World Vision, so I can go out and help people who want to sponsor children."

The magnitude of what the Haitian people have endured and the extent of the work that remains also wasn't lost on Dause, who knows the mission in March will be especially challenging with only five people.

What may be the biggest obstacle, though, is the goal to raise $2,400 to hire a rehabilitation technician to work at New Life for one year. The group setup a Plumfund page, https://www.plumfund.com/charity-fundraising/therapy-mission-in-haiti-2017, and a silent auction is in the works.

"We can go and do evaluations and a few treatments, but for the kids to really benefit, they need someone to carry out those treatments a couple of times of week, just like kids in the U.S. who get therapy," Ladyman said. "Our goal this trip is to have everything at New Life Children's Home ready for Jack, the rehab technician when we leave, including having him, trained. We would like to do once-a-month teleconferences with him and go back once a year."

With the help of the international travel grant, Ladyman hopes to make connections so other Indiana State faculty can take students to Haiti for service, as well as begin work to establish an Indiana State clinic at New Life orphanage, where students or alumni could serve in various capacities.

"There is no place in the U.S. where (these students) could just walk in and start getting kids out of wheelchairs and doing evaluations. There are no HIPPA laws or regulations there that prevent treatment. Plus, you see a lot of diagnoses there that you don't see in the U.S.," she said. "It's really win-win for everyone when universities establish partnerships like this in developing countries. The developing countries get some extra help and students get a chance to serve others by using their skills in ways that they couldn't have back home."

Photo: https://photos.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Submitted-Photos/Staff-Uploads/i-2QZv5kB/0/L/Haiti%208-L.jpg - Indiana State University students work with orphans at Hope Home in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti during spring break last year. Another group from Indiana State will return to the country during spring break this year to continue therapy services at New Life Orphanage.

Photo: https://photos.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Submitted-Photos/Staff-Uploads/i-MfNJFcb/0/L/Haiti%204-L.jpg - An Indiana State University student works with a Haitian child to provide therapy services at an orphanage during a service trip to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere last March. Another group from Indiana State will return to the country during spring break this year to continue therapy services.

Photo: https://photos.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Submitted-Photos/Staff-Uploads/i-9d2RGrc/0/L/Haiti7-L.jpg - Indiana State University students work with orphans at Hope Home in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti during spring break last year. Another group from Indiana State will return to the country during spring break this year to offer therapy services at New Life Orphanage.

Contact: Meg Ladyman, assistant professor of occupational therapy and occupational therapy clinical director, Indiana State University, margaret.ladyman@indstate.edu

Writer: Betsy Simon, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or betsy.simon@indstate.edu

Story Highlights

A year after a service trip to Haiti, another group from Indiana State University prepares for a second trip to Haiti in March to provide occupational therapy to orphans.

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