Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Becky Wagner, Theresa Yanik and Hannah Wolff
Becky Wagner, Theresa Yanik and Hannah Wolff are NIU graduate students in physical therapy.

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

October 10, 2007

Physical therapy grad students bring
wheelchairs, hope to rural Guatemala

DeKalb — In rural and poverty-stricken Guatemala, many of the Mayan people believe that a disability is a curse from God.

Adults are shunned. Children are abandoned. An already poor health care system offers no help at all.

“If you have a disability, you’re kind of looked at as an outcast,” said Hannah Wolff, a Northern Illinois University graduate student in physical therapy. “Nothing is handicapped-accessible.”

But there is a ray of light for those in need.

Hope Haven International and Children’s Medical Ministries bring used wheelchairs to Guatemala, as well as to various other countries around the world, where volunteers refurbish and distribute them.

Part of that distribution includes fittings, the best way to maximize wheelchair functionality and comfort for the users. Children, especially, need proper fittings: They’re still growing, and the chairs need to grow with them.

“It’s real important to position them correctly,” said Nancy Nuzzo, a professor in the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders, “so they can grow upright and can breathe right and function.”

For Wolff and NIU classmates Becky Wagner and Theresa Yanik, all of whom will graduate next May, the Guatemalan wheelchair distribution provided a perfect way to put their learning into action.

It also helped meet the program’s requirement of a research project before graduation. Nuzzo served as faculty adviser on the project, which earned approval from the Institutional Review Board.

Guatemala in August

The trio of students from the College of Health and Human Sciences were in Guatemala from Aug. 2 to Aug. 10, fitting patients for wheelchairs and other assistive devices, including canes, crutches and walkers.

A $500 scholarship from the Crofton, Md.-based Children’s Medical Ministries paid their airfare.

Wolff’s aunt and her sister, who also are physical therapists, and her father, who volunteered as a mechanic in the wheelchair repair shop, joined the travelers.

“We really wanted to do something meaningful to us and that we cared about,” Wagner said. “Being able to do physical therapy for these people is very meaningful to us.”

“There’s such a need down there,” Wolff added. “It just tears at your heart to see the conditions they live in, especially children, because they don’t have a chance.”

The students also conducted research, administered surveys to everyone who received a wheelchair while also taking questionnaires and health assessments to nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, monasteries, orphanages and schools with therapy services.

Among the questions: How long had they waited for a wheelchair? How far had they traveled that day, and by what means? How did they get around previously? Were they carried? Did they crawl? Did they simply stay in bed? Did they know what was wrong with them? Were they receiving any treatment? What activities could they manage independently? What activities required help? Dressing? Bathing? Eating?

“We found a total lack of education on the part of the parents,” Yanik said. “They don’t know about hygiene, or prenatal nutrition. They’re putting coffee in their babies’ bottles.”

The results of those surveys are being compiled and analyzed; Wagner, Wolff and Yanik plan to present their findings in Washington, D.C., next April at a national conference for Children’s Medical Ministries.

They also hope to publish their official research in Physical Therapy Journal and a less-formal article in Physical Therapy Magazine.

Yet the task of asking questions and recording answers is not what glimmers so vividly in their memories.

‘Impressed by the selflessness’

They remember the small huts with tin roofs and dirt floors, or the families crammed into old cars. They remember the open air markets, and the villagers working the fields with machetes.

They think of a nun who had waited two years for a wheelchair; she had both knees replaced and no follow-up care. They think of their emotionally draining visit to an orphanage, home to children with physical and mental disabilities, some locked into stainless steel cribs.

“A lot of kids can’t even sit up,” Yanik said.

Thoughts of Sammy bring tears to their eyes. The 8-year-old orphan wears a helmet and still sleeps in one of the steel cribs, the bars padded to soften the blow while he bangs his head all day. When he’s outside the crib, though, he happily runs around the orphanage and hugs anyone he sees.

Such joy is common for all the orphans when visitors arrive.

“They just light up. They have so much personality,” Wolff said. “You can tell they don’t get a lot of attention.”

Meanwhile, the wheelchair repair shop operated by Chris and Donna Mooney’s Bethel Ministry is helping not only those with disabilities but all of the village’s residents.

Two of the men who work there are recipients of wheelchairs. Another worker is a former gang member who turned his life around. The former secretary, whose family was starving, was given English lessons so she could earn an accounting certificate.

“I was impressed by the selflessness of the people,” Wolff said. “They asked, ‘How can I serve? What can I give up to make this person’s life better?’ ”

Wheelchairs are fixed and cleaned, including the rust, and sometimes are equipped with seat belts or positioning straps. Power wheelchairs are adapted with foot controls or head controls for those who were unable to use their hands.

Fittings and distributions are a monthly event that attracts entire families. The workers also perform yearly checkups and routine maintenance on wheelchairs already distributed.

“One dad – his face was just beaming,” Wagner said of the distribution. “For them, it’s life-changing. Here in the United States, we take it for granted that if you’re disabled, you’re going to get a wheelchair. In Guatemala, there’s no guarantee.”

Wagner, Wolff and Yanik now hope to create awareness here at home.

“People don’t know the need for wheelchairs in these countries,” Wagner said.

“What percentage of wheelchairs gets thrown away?” Wolff asked. “There’s still a use. You can send them to Hope Haven.”

Visit and for more information.

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