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St. Kate’s students work with alumna’s wheelchair program in Peru

St. Kate's students help fit wheelchairs for children in Peru.
St. Kate's students help fit wheelchairs for children in Peru.

The families come from all over Peru, and they typically carry their children on their backs in a blanket or a sling — some as young as 3 years old, others in their mid-teens. Most, if not all, have spent their entire lives just lying on a blanket in a corner. Today, the families hope, is the day their child will be blessed with a wheelchair.

Each spring, five students from St. Catherine University’s Masters of Arts in Occupational Therapy (MAOT) program in the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health travel to Peru for fieldwork credit and to collaborate with Eleanore’s Project, a nonprofit that provides wheelchairs to children with physical disabilities. The students are paired with volunteer professional OTs from the United States and Peruvian OT professionals and student interns from local partner organizations in Lima and Arequipa that are responsible for identifying the children the group will see.

“It is an incredible experience for our students to have the immersion experience and learn not only from experts in the OT wheelchair seating area, but also to be part of such an exceptional program,” says Kate Barrett, assistant professor of occupational science and occupational therapy at St. Kate’s.

The volunteer OTs and students assess the children’s posture, movement and other physical abilities, and ask their families about their lives: How does the child communicate? Where will the wheelchair be used? Does this child go to school? Will the chair be used in the home? They then fit, modify or fabricate a wheelchair for the children.

Last spring, master’s-level students Kendra Johnson, Brittany Bernsten, Kristin Thornton, Emily Rudeen and Laura Arrellono assisted in modifying and fitting 85 wheelchairs at a couple of temporary clinics over the course of the two-week trip. This year, from March 16 to April 4, another five students from St. Kate's will join Barrett in Peru: Hilary Frank, Brittany Arcand, Kinzie Phillips, Michelle Honek, and Megan Warfield.

Barrett, who received a faculty development grant a few years ago to integrate community experiences into the OT curriculum, spent more than a year working with Tamara Kittelson-Aldred ’75 to develop the relationship between St. Kate’s and Eleanore’s Project. Kittelson-Aldred, a graduate of St. Kate’s OT program and an occupational therapist specializing in wheelchair mobility, founded Eleanore's Project with her family — husband, Rick, and daughters, Julian ’08 and Arwen — in 2004.

The Kittelson-Aldred family became involved in providing wheelchairs to children in Peru thanks to Don Dubuque, a retired special education teacher, and not long after the death of Tamara Kittelson-Aldred’s third daughter, Eleanore, who had a rare form of cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair all her short life.

Eleanore died in 2001 just before her 12th birthday. Dubuque was on a personal mission to deliver wheelchairs to a school for disabled students in the capital city, Lima, and what the Kittelson-Aldred family thought would be a one-time project to assist a family friend has evolved into something bigger.

Bringing mobility abroad
Eleanore’s Project, which is based in Missoula, Montana, now serves children in both Peru and Jordan. Funds from an endowment and a Buuck Family Foundation grant cover the operating costs. There is only one part-time employee, in addition to the Kittelson-Aldred family managing various parts of the organization.

All donations go toward buying and shipping equipment for the children. The new or refurbished wheelchairs, and even strollers, are shipped from the United States to the local partner organizations in advance of the group visits. (Arwen Kittelson-Aldred started the ball rolling in Jordan in 2006 while spending time there with the Peace Corps.)

“Tamara strongly believes in providing the best wheelchair possible to every child with whom she interacts, whether that is in her private practice in Montana, Peru or Jordan,” says St. Kate’s Professor Barrett. “We provide each child with a safe and appropriately fitting wheelchair to maximize the child’s function and ability to interact in a meaningful way with his or her surroundings.”

For some, this means propelling their own wheelchair, writes Tamara Kittelson-Aldred on Eleanore’s Project’s "The Expedition Blog"; for others, it means being able to be fed in a chair instead of a parent’s arms or to control his or her head enough to look around the room.

“We try to get a sense of the whole child and how the wheelchair can be the best tool possible,” adds Kittelson-Aldred. “Sometimes it involves changing ideas about what a wheelchair can be.” For example, with Kevin, a boy she and the St. Kate’s students met in Peru on the most recent trip, Kittelson-Aldred writes: “(His) first words when he saw his sporty little wheelchair were, ‘It’s too small.’ He was used to sitting in a wheelchair much too large for him that he could not propel himself.”

March 10, 2010 by Pauline Oo

See also: Alumnae/i, Faculty, Healthcare, Social Justice, Students