Wintermester service learning project enriches WCHHS team with experience and cultural sensitivity


During a Wintermester service learning project in Belize, RU OT and nursing students collaborated with MedicForce and the Belize Ministry of Health to learn more about rural health care delivery.

To extend the Waldron College of Health and Human Services' classrooms, 15 RU students and three faculty members "wintermestered" in Belize.

In conjunction with MedicForce, a nonprofit organization that utilizes first aid and medical professionals to provide training and care to remote communities throughout the world, the RU party spent 11 days in Toledo, an impoverished rural district in southern Belize. For the project, they assessed community health care needs and trained health workers.

Led by Assistant Professor of Nursing Gini Weisz, Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy (OT) Sarah Smidl and Rebecca Epperly, instructor of Communications Science and Disorders (COSD), the team included nine second-year OT graduate students, an OT alumna, and five students and graduates from nursing.

"Interdisciplinary collaborative teamwork is the model in which we all practice," said Smidl. "We had a chance to develop these skills in a challenging environment."

The group trained in San Marcos for four days with MedicForce using guidelines from the Belize Ministry of Health before four days in the field. Fieldwork included assessing and understanding the local health care delivery system and the challenges of rural health care in the Toledo district. They also worked with local elected health care workers to set up community health fairs at which screenings and testing were performed.


To extend the Waldron College of Health and Human Services' classrooms, 15 RU students and three faculty members "wintermestered" in Belize on a service learning project.

"It was eye-opening to see what health care looks like in a developing country," said Epperly. "Access was a huge issue. Imagine hiking five miles to a bus stop and then a long, bumpy bus ride to a clinic or a hospital."

For the OT students and faculty, the experience was a chance to get a new perspective on their field as well as a different culture.

"There is no word for disability in their language," Smidl said. "As rehabilitation professionals, our understanding of how to improve a person's quality of life was welcomed."

The nursing students prepared medical lesson plans in advance about topics such as vital signs or emergency care. They also worked through role-play situations with the village health care workers on handling initial contact and assessments. As the area has a high maternal mortality, pre-natal emergency care was emphasized.

The students were gifted, said Weisz, and she lauded their performance in difficult conditions. The teams, most of whom were first-time international medical volunteers, confronted a vastly different culture and language as well as plenty of mud, due to an unusually rainy dry season.

"They loved being able to practice and got hands-on experience. They proved themselves a resourceful and can-do group," she said.

The group's international experiences will be the featured presentation at the second annual Waldron College of Interprofessional Symposium and Expo (WCIPSE), a day-long celebration of original research by the WCHHS faculty and students. The WCIPSE will be April 14 in Heth Hall.

Feb 4, 2015