An Experience I Shall Not Forget
A volunteer recounts her year of working with our youth in the Dominican Republic, building positive relationships, immersing herself in the culture, and looking at how NPH breaks the cycle of poverty.
September 19, 2019 - Dominican Republic
My name is Kendra Burmeister and I hail from Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. I've spent a year at NPH Dominican Republic working as a volunteer therapist based at San Marcos, our special needs home. The time has sped by. It feels like only yesterday that I was working as a bilingual speech-language pathologist near Chicago, where my career began.
One of my main roles as a speech-language pathologist has been implementing feeding/swallowing therapy and training for the children in San Marcos. The children cannot feed themselves due to physical impairments and have difficulty swallowing. I had a few successes throughout the year, the most important being collaborating with caregivers and staff to train the team in safe-feeding procedures and therapeutic techniques to maintain the childrenís feeding/swallowing skills. We have seen an improvement in the childrenís ability to swallow with reduced risk of choking or developing more serious health complications due to their swallowing disorders. When I think of this, I will always smile.
The first major difference between the Dominican Republic and the midwest United States is the heat. It definitely took some adjustment! Iíve enjoyed visiting the beautiful mountains and beaches, trying new foods, and getting to know the people and culture. I've especially loved the tostones (fried plantains), locrio de pollo (chicken and rice), and many tropical fruits and vegetables. Iím going to miss having fresh mango, avocado, coconut, and pineapple once Iím back home.
Prior to arriving, I was aware that Iíd be meeting and working closely with people living in poverty, but I was unsure what that would be like. There was an initial period of shock when I first visited the bateyes, the impoverished communities of traditionally Haitian sugarcane workers. People in these communities often live in houses with dirt floors, walls and roofs made of scrapmetal, and no interior bathroom or running water. Learning about and witnessing the realities of extreme poverty was heartbreaking. After moving beyond the initial shock, however, I strived to focus on knowing and understanding the person living within the home and not just their living conditions.
Though physical therapy and occupational therapy are becoming more accessible in the Dominican Republic, speech-language therapy generally is not. During my year, I frequently consulted with the director of our special needs home, local therapists, and professionals to see if any local therapists could support the speech-language and swallowing skills of our children.
Unfortunately, the answer was no.
Not only are speech-language pathologists rare, but the limited available services are expensive and restricted to more metropolitan areas. Low-income families cannot afford speech, physical, or occupational therapy when they already struggle to provide basic food, shelter, and security for their children. Special education services and related therapies are not mandated here as they are in more developed countries such as the United States. Very few educators have training in the field of special education and children with more severe needs often donít attend school at all.
It is extremely challenging to care for special needs individuals in the Dominican Republic. Many families want the best and work hard to provide all that they can for their loved one. I met a mother whose 16-year-old son with cerebral palsy was immobile, nonverbal, and completely dependent on others. The motherís older son, who had helped care for his impaired brother, had recently died. Through tears, the mother told me she feared she might have to give up the only child she had left because she had no one to care for him while she worked and she could not afford childcare. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many special needs children in the Dominican Republic and a reason why NPH can make such a huge impact in the lives of these children and families.
Breaking the Cycle of Poverty
NPH Dominican Republic does incredible work to combat poverty. The children in our home have all their physical needs met: food, water, shelter, clothing, a secure living environment, and access to a quality education. In addition to providing jobs to locals, NPH has outreach programs that serve neighboring communities. Families can bring children with special needs to San Marcos for therapies. I worked with multiple families who said they could neither afford nor find a therapist who specialized in feeding/swallowing and communication. In this regard, NPH, its local staff,and volunteer therapists are able to fulfill a huge need.
My time at NPH Dominican Republic has taught me the importance of openness and patience when working within a culture different from your own. To build positive relationships and successfully collaborate with those from a different culture, you must prioritize observing and engaging the culture with humility. This means asking unbiased questions to understand the experience and background of those you work with and working to avoid frustrations when something may not necessarily ďfitĒ with what youíre accustomed to.
Iíve had the chance to build relationships with many adolescent girls. What most marked my heart was the openness of the girls to express their struggles, questions, and insecurities with me. On many occasions I could relate to their feelings and experiences; however, other times cultural differences and the past traumas they shared were completely outside my experience. The willingness of these girls to share their lives and trust in me was incredibly humbling and moving.
It's been challenging, yet an incredibly special experience. There have been times when Iíve become frustrated with differences in organizational procedures, available resources, and behavioral challenges among the children. Despite these challenges, the relationships Iíve built here make it worth it. I will never forget the endless smiles, hugs, and conversations and I am grateful for the openness of the children and staff of NPH to accept me into their family.
Interested in following in Kendra's footsteps and becoming a volunteer at NPH Dominican Republic? Visit nph.org for more details.