Humanitarian Partnerships, Physical Therapy Students and Faculty Making a Difference

With the current financial situation, people may be finding it more difficult to expend personal resources for humanitarian relief efforts; however, the need for outreach and services in the third world has not diminished. One potential solution to the shortage of personal funds and volunteer personnel is to incorporate opportunities for service into professional educational programs. Service organizations and universities may be able to fund jointly these opportunities which benefit not only the recipients of the service, but the students, faculty, and service organizations themselves.

One such partnership has been developed between the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the University of the Pacific and local Rotary Clubs. The result has been the annual provision of faculty and student experts for Rotary-sponsored wheelchair distribution trips.

The development of this partnership began in November of 2006, when Rotary Clubs from the district in which the University of the Pacific resides, went to Ecuador for the purpose of delivering 280 Wheelchair Foundation wheelchairs to people in need. An adjunct faculty member, Dr. Joseph Serra, who is a retired orthopedic surgeon, invited me, a Physical Therapist faculty member, to accompany the Rotary Club because of my expertise with physically disabled people and assistive mobility devices.

This was the first time a physical therapist accompanied Rotarians from California’s Central Valley. I instructed several Rotarians in how to adjust the wheelchairs for the recipients and she educated family members and caregivers in transfer training and body mechanics. Upon returning from Ecuador, we recognized the value of this partnership between Rotary and the Department of Physical Therapy, and the potential impact on students and future wheelchair recipients. The Stockton Rotary Club and several other Rotary Clubs in the district have since committed funds for two students to participate each year in similar experiences. In November 2007, two students and I accompanied the Central Valley Rotary Clubs to Peru and in 2008, to Guatemala. A third opportunity presented itself when the Wheelchair Foundation invited the faculty member and a student to Medellin, Columbia, to evaluate a new pediatric wheelchair they were distributing for the first time.

This partnership has served as an impetus for engaging students and faculty actively in international service missions. These opportunities enable them to contribute their expertise while adding to their development as culturally competent clinicians and educators. Our Department's goals are to: 1. Enhance students' awareness of issues faced when providing care for diverse populations; 2. Provide insight into considerations regarding potential issues for immigrant relations; 3. Promote students' appreciation of the importance of self-reflection as a means of enrichment; and 4. Broaden the students' perspectives of international humanitarian opportunities with culturally diverse populations.

Sharing these goals with the University, and putting them into the perspective of the University’s priorities, namely:

I. Heighten Academic Distinctiveness – Sharing with other students and faculty our personal growth and professional experiences with different cultures (socio-economic, medical, cultural);

III. Strengthen Competitive Positioning - Sharing our experiences on the physical therapy departmental web page demonstrates to applicants the University's commitments to cultural competence and community service; and

V. Expand External Relationships - As we attempt to address a university priority, this venture has been the beginning for the department as we strive to develop local and international partnerships for outreach; has resulted in successful internal funding through the University, which has offset the faculty members’ expenses.

Following each of the Rotary-sponsored wheelchair distributions, the students who participated present their experiences to the entire Doctor of Physical Therapy student body, faculty and University administrators. They also speak at numerous local Rotary Clubs to share their experiences (with a new culture, with applying their developing expertise, and with Rotary), to thank the Rotarians for their support, and to encourage continued support for future endeavors.

With an "n" of 4 students and no objective data, it is impossible to draw conclusions as to the significance of these opportunities. However, one of the two students who has since graduated, returned to Peru to volunteer her services as a PT for 1 month. Moreover, Rotarians have indicated that they are committed to continuing the partnership to further the effectiveness of their outreach efforts and to promote service learning and the mission of Rotary to our aspiring clinicians.

In closing, partnering with service organizations can provide a means for student participation in service, both locally and globally. The benefits are far reaching and the need is there. It is incumbent upon us to explore creative solutions in these trying times.


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