Service learning project in Belize sharpens skills and inspires self-confidence

rapport building
A member of the WCHHS Belize team works with a young Belizean client to build rapport, a key first step in the diagnostic process.

To extend their professional experience, Radford students, faculty members and alumni "wintermestered" in Belize for a service learning project.

The team of second-year Occupational Therapy (OT) graduate students and second year Communcations Science and Disorders (COSD) students was led by Assistant OT Professor Sarah Smidl and Rebecca Epperly, COSD instructor. Carma Sample, M.OT ’15, and Johanna Shelton, M.OT ’15, who were veterans of a 2015 trip to Belize also joined the 19-member team as leaders.

For the project, the team worked to identify children with developmental disabilities using a screening tool or protocol developed during the fall semester to be culturally-specific to Belize. They visited nine villages and conducted a series of hour-long interviews and diagnostic sessions with families and over 300 children, aged 2-8, during their four and a half days in the field.

The team worked in in Toledo, an impoverished rural district in southern Belize in conjunction with the Belizean Ministry of Edcuation and MedicForce, a nonprofit organization that utilizes first aid and medical professionals to provide training and care to remote communities throughout the world.


As their service learning project included testing a custom-made assessment tool, the team's days did not end until the data was processed.

Smidl was struck by the Radford students’ development as professionals.

“It was a pleasure to watch the team from day one become more confident and professional,” said Smidl. “They are fully invested in their professions and competently applied their knowledge and skills in a hectic environment.”

The students, according to Epperly, took the challenges of providing health care to an underserved population head-on.

“They worked in rugged conditions, an impoverished area and confronted a language barrier,” said Epperly. “It was both heartwarming and humbling to see them work with the children, teachers and families we met who are doing the best they can.”

In the field for four and a half days, the team visited nine villages to sharpen their clinical skills and explore a different culture and lifestyle.

For Lauren Paulette ’15, a second-year COSD graduate student, the trip was an eye-opening first international experience. From beans and rice at every meal to having to translate from and be translated into Quetchi, the native language, to having to sling and sleep in a hammock shrouded in mosquito netting, the trip was rich with challenges. 

“The biggest thing for me was realizing there were always going to be roadblocks, “ Paulette said. “I learned just how important collaboration – with colleagues, clients or caregivers - is to being successful.”

Sarah Mathew, one of the aspiring OT practitioners, cited one key value of her experience as a volunteer for the professional service learning project, saying: “I gained much practice in a key component of occupational therapy: being flexible. We learned how to utilize what we were given to accommodate the students.”

Caroline Swanson, a second year COSD student from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, who is doing her practicum now in a local elementary school, relished the grassroots practice experience and is incorporating its lessons daily.

“We were thrown into situations that encouraged us to think quickly about how we could ‘make it work’ with the supplies we had and environment we were in,” she said. “This is something I'm using every day now. I need to be able to think quick on my feet and use what's available to me at that moment to provide care and compassion.” 

Dec 31, 2099