College of Education > News and Publications > News: Oct. - Dec. 2010 > Students with Interest in Rehabilitation Volunteer Internationally

Students with Interest in Rehabilitation Volunteer Internationally

International volunteerism has been an important service of at least five students taking courses in Penn State's Rehabilitation and Human Services program.

by Joe Savrock (December 2010)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - A little volunteering can make a big difference in the lives of people in need. A lot of volunteering makes—well—a world of a difference.

International volunteerism has been an important service of at least five students taking courses in Penn State's Rehabilitation and Human Services program. Kristin Momyer, Corinne Ozbek, Aubry Regan, Eliza Zimmerer, and Nicole Rafferty have unselfishly devoted time to improve the lives of people in eastern Africa, western Asia, and Central America.

Relief for HIV/AIDS Victims in Kenya

Kristin Momyer recently spent ten days in Nairobi, Kenya, working with a group of 16 volunteers to provide relief for a region hindered by a sweeping HIV/AIDS epidemic. The volunteers, eight college students and eight adults, were sponsored by Kristin’s church in Pittsburgh. The group worked in Nairobi’s Mathare Valley Slums and the Ongata Rongai Slums as well as in one of the city’s rural sections.

Kristin notes that in Kenya, women are twice as likely as men to be infected with HIV/AIDS, while girls from ages 15 to 24 are four times as likely to have the virus. “Polygamy is not legal, but it is accepted as a social status,” said Kristin. That social tolerance has allowed the virus to run rampant.

But, as Kristin points out, “The epidemic is decreasing now because of education about the spread of HIV/AIDS. Education—something we so take for granted.”

Kristin and her colleagues undertook a variety of tasks. “At an AIDS/HIV clinic we counted pills in the pharmacy, helped with home visits and counseling sessions, checked vitals for the doctors, and assisted in the school,” says Kristin. “I most often helped the head social worker with his home visits and counseling sessions.”

The volunteers worked in less-than-lavish surroundings. Streets were lined with garbage and feces mixed amid the infamous red clay of Africa. “Children do not have shoes, and they have one outfit to call their own,” Kristin related. “Most are orphans that live with neighbors, aunts and uncles, or by themselves. Houses are really just 8-foot by 6-foot scrap-metal boxes with tin roofs and have either a bed or two chairs—not both—and a coffee table. These hold anywhere from two people to ten people.”

Kristin said she was fully welcomed by the families of the children she worked with. She noted that Kenyans are “some of the most amiable people I have ever had the fortune to know. They listened intently without interruption; they waited to speak and ask questions until they were sure we were finished talking. They seem to know life is about people and taking care of each other, and they are content with the little they have—which is not very much.”

She adds, “People in Kenya are much more relaxed than Americans. They kept joking with us, saying things like, ‘You're on Kenyan time now’ and ‘You Americans and your watches! We'll get there when we get there.’"

Kristin is hoping to return to Kenya this summer for more volunteer work. Currently a junior at Penn State, she plans to graduate in spring 2012 with a degree in rehabilitation and human services, and minor in kinesiology and psychology. Then, she says, “I hope to go to graduate school for occupational therapy, but I have been interested in looking further into being a child life specialist lately. My hope, though, is to one day open a counseling clinic in Kenya for women with AIDS/HIV.”

Teaching Orphans in Armenia

Corinne Ozbek served as an intern for six weeks at an orphanage in Yerevan, Armenia. She and 30 other interns worked with the nonprofit Armenian General Benevolent Union.

“I was given the opportunity to work at the orphanage with a group of children between the ages of 8 and 11 who had significant emotional needs,” says Corinne. “Many of them had histories of neglect and trauma and were dealing with feelings of abandonment. My task was to work with them every day and devise lesson plans to teach them the English language.”

Although the orphanage offers schooling during the year in which many of the children study English, Corinne says, “I made it a personal goal to do more with the children, to truly make a difference. My experience was geared toward how I could connect with them by building trust and thus help them work through their trauma and emotional needs.”

She explains, “Each day I would meet with the children and present my lesson plan for the afternoon. I would have them work on an activity that would allow them to express their feelings and get to know more about one another and their unique journeys prior to staying at the orphanage. This helped them strengthen their support system with one another. I was surprised to see how well the children adapted to my lessons as they began to turn to their peers for support.”

Corinne was impressed with the positive mindset at the institution. “The children at this orphanage, despite all odds, were able to remain optimistic and hope for their futures. They taught me that, no matter what life brings your way, it can’t take away your happiness.

“Overall, I feel that this experience has truly opened my eyes to the reality of life abroad and the need to help those less fortunate,” continues Corinne. “I believe that I am truly blessed to have met such inspirational children and I wish to pass on their knowledge by dedicating my life to helping others.”

Corinne’s trip to Armenia was sort of a coming home: She was born in neighboring Turkey. But she points out that, “I am Armenian by heritage and nationality. My family takes great pride in our culture and has gone to great lengths to make sure I do not forget our traditions, language, and customs.”

Although she is fluent in Armenian, Corinne says, “There was still a slight language barrier that the kids would point out, such as lacking knowledge of current Armenian slang words.”

Says Corinne, “Armenia is a beautiful culture that is deeply rooted in spirituality. Life in Armenia is simple—people work not for status, but for personal satisfaction and to live a happy life. Rarely ever do you see separations in class and socioeconomic status, because no matter their income, Armenians strive to make the best of their situation.”

A senior majoring in rehabilitation and human services, Corinne expects to graduate in August 2011. “I would like to become an occupational therapist and work with children with developmental disabilities, like autism and Aspergers syndrome,” she says.


Building the Infrastructure in Honduras

In 2009 Aubry Regan spent a week in Honduras, Central America, volunteering with the national organization Global Brigades. “We worked daily alongside the Hondurans, building home infrastructures such as outside bathrooms, stoves, water storage units, and cementing floors,” she says. The group also offered education to the community by means of public health and preventative workshops.

“The people of Honduras uniformly do not have economical or available access to medical and preventative health care, and therefore also suffer from their daily public and environmental exposures that provoke disease and illness,” says Aubry.

Aubry and her group worked in a small rural town, far removed from any urbanized areas. The rural way of life was quite defined. “Almost all able men work in the sugar cane fields, the women attend to all the household daily tasks, and the children attend school,” says Aubry. “But schooling is only offered up to grade 6 in a one-room schoolhouse.”

She adds, “Within the community in the mountains we worked in, it honestly was up hills both ways. Not one house, among the thousand people in this village, had electricity or running water. Their lifestyle faithfully revolved around their religious beliefs and the community within the church. The children galavanted daily among our presence with smiles and laughter, so anxious and willing to help us.

“I hope for the future to only grow a stronger connection with Honduras, in traveling personally and professionally there. I found it to be sincerely a beautiful country with gracious and loving people. I truly learned more from them than I could ever give back.”

The experience inspired Aubry and another student, Stephanie Eldred, to establish a new Penn State student organization. Aubry and Stephanie are co-presidents of the Penn State Public Health Brigades to Honduras. They plan to lead and facilitate another trip to Honduras.

“The function of the Penn State Public Health Brigades to Honduras, alongside other student organizations like Global Brigades, Water Brigades, and Medical Brigades, is to empower both volunteers, students, and local communities to work together to develop and attain sustainable health solutions in the developing world,” says Aubry.

Aubry expects to graduate in summer 2011 with a degree in rehabilitation and human services, with a minor in biology. “I have many plans and aspirations, some of which include Teach for America, the Peace Corps, and graduate school,” she says, the order and time of which she will decide later. “For now I just want to keep doing the best I can and give back for all that I’ve been fortunate enough to receive, and the rest will follow.”

Eliza head shot.jpg
Teaching Young Adults in Costa Rica

Eliza Zimmerer spent six weeks in San Carlos, Costa Rica, working with a volunteer program known as Cross-Cultural Solutions. “I wanted to begin to learn the Spanish language while contributing some of my energy and passion to another community,” she says.

“The volunteers lived together and we each had our own volunteer projects,” says Eliza. “My roommate led art projects for adolescent girls at a group home. She was an incredible girl and we became really good friends over this time.”

Eliza assisted in an intermediate English class at a community college. “My students ranged in age from 18 to 28 and brought a diverse range of experiences and goals to the classroom,” says Eliza. “I wanted to incorporate interesting and pertinent topics into my lessons in order to further their curiosity and familiarity with the American language and culture. For example, I led a weekly ‘travel day’ where we looked at pictures of an American city and talked about the food, geography, and leisure activities that you could experience there.

The cultural differences between Costa Rica and America definitely took me by surprise. I was aware of concepts like Tico time—in that timeliness is not a priority—as well as the importance of family and the patriarchal traditions of Costa Rica.”

She continues, “I didn't recognize, however, the extent to which these seemingly minor differences would impact my daily life and the interactions I experienced in the classroom. While the students in the school where I volunteered were some of the most friendly and optimistic people I've ever met, the structure of the educational system was very applied and focused primarily on vocabulary and concepts that you might share with tourists. I thought there was much more to explore with the students, but the available material and lesson plans came just from the teacher’s personal knowledge and resources.”

A senior majoring in rehabilitation and human services with honors, and a minor in psychology, Eliza looks forward to graduating this spring. After that, she says, “I'm really excited to move to New York and work in an administrative or customer relations position with a company, either in financial services or health care. And eventually, I want to own my own business.”


Working with Children in El Salvador

While in high school, Nicole Rafferty traveled with a group of twenty-five student volunteers to a mission house in Las Delicias, El Salvador. The Las Delicias community is small, consisting of about 50 families.

“In El Salvador, there is a group of elite, which is probably less than 15% of the population, who hold all the power and money,” says Nicole. “The majority of the population is very poor.”

Living conditions in Las Delicias are rugged. “Their houses are made of mainly sticks, aluminum siding, cardboard boxes, and anything else they can find,” says Nicole. “The families are typically more than five people, all generations live together, and they share a communal bedroom. Their kitchens are usually outside. They get running water every 13 days, and their bathrooms are a hole in the ground. Many of the children we worked with didn’t bathe for days and wore the same outfits for multiple days in a row.”

The days were split in half. “The first half we were at a construction site where we made cement and laid the foundation for a library being built,” says Nicole. “Then we spent time with the children in the community. We did arts and crafts, played ‘futbol,’ made jewelry, and did a bunch of other activities. We also visited an orphanage and a center for malnourished babies.”

Nicole is currently a sophomore majoring in elementary education, and she has a strong interest in human development and family studies. She says she hopes to return to El Salvador either this coming summer or the following summer and work as a chaperone.

After graduation, she says, “I think I want to work in a school with children who are disadvantaged. I’ve thought about doing Teach for America.”