Why I returned to Tanzania as a Group Leader
Since graduating as a Doctor of Physical Therapy from Stony Brook University in 2014, Kristen Connolly has had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and contributing to a greater good. A traveler at heart, Kristen knew she’d eventually take her passion for physical therapy and rehabilitation abroad, but wasn’t sure how. In April 2016, the opportunity finally presented itself: to travel to Tanzania with a group of Student Physical Therapists from Northwestern University! The mission? To provide volunteer Physical Therapy services to Tanzanian communities in need. The result? Shared knowledge, valuable service, and a vision for an allied health module in Tanzania.
Kristen shares her story of commitment to sustainable global impact and lessons learned during her two journeys to Tanzania with EDU Africa:
I knew there would be a way to combine my passions for travel, teaching, community service, and rehabilitation, but wasn’t sure how it’d manifest.
When a colleague asked if I’d join a group of Student Physical Therapists in April 2016 for volunteer work in Tanzania, I was in awe. This one trip would encompass all of my aspirations, and I didn’t even hesitate to say “YES!”
Shortly after deciding to journey to Africa for the first time, fears started settling in. Is it safe in Tanzania? Am I qualified to provide healthcare services globally? What if our efforts aren’t successful? What if this turns out the be a “voluntourism” tragedy? Could we do anything meaningful in just two weeks? By the grace of something greater than myself, these “what if” scenarios were relinquished as soon as we arrived in Tanzania. From the organization with EDU Africa to the communities we serviced, I felt supported and safe. EDU Africa’s research and energy spent on building relationships with the outreach sites prevented a voluntourism tragedy. We were prepared with Swahili lessons, review of cultural norms, advice on culture shock, and guides that offered constant wisdom.
Our group of four licensed Physical Therapists and 18 students volunteered with various communities throughout Arusha, each with unique needs. Since a majority of my Physical Therapy experience is in pediatrics, I was placed with Step-by-Step Learning Centre (SSLC)a school providing inclusionary education for children with special needs. We were guided by the director of SSLC (and a true force of nature), Margaret, whose vision of a safe, inclusionary space for children with special needs is alive and growing.
Planning a return to Tanzania
When I said “goodbye” to the staff and children at SSLC in April 2016, I knew it wasn’t permanent. Shortly after returning to the United States, I started planning a 2017 service trip. This time, I intended to lead the program and invite students from my alma mater—Stony Brook University! When I reached out to faculty at Stony Brook, they were supportive of students traveling to Tanzania, and we collaborated on the next steps. The faculty held a meeting for students interested, sharing a presentation I made to highlight the value of EDU Africa’s module in Tanzania.
I anxiously awaited a list of students who were interested, worried Stony Brook students would be intimidated by travel to Africa. I reflected on my initial fears in 2016, and knew they’d have similar concerns. However, through many conversations and months of coordinating, I got extraordinarily lucky. Six enthusiastic girls committed to joining the trip, and their fundraising efforts kicked off through crowdfunding and community campaigns.
Given our smaller, intimate group size, we aimed to maximize quality impact in Tanzania. We decided our efforts would be focused in two communities: Step-by-Step Learning Centre and Shanga Shanga. At Shanga Shanga, adults with disabilities are employed to create artisan glassware, jewelry, and houseware out of recycled materials. In order to further guarantee success, I recruited a licensed colleague to facilitate the program at Shanga Shanga. His wholehearted agreement to join the program was a perfect addition to the team, especially given his work experience with neurological conditions and prosthetics!
Our Success Stories
Success can be measured in many ways. I could say this trip was successful because the Student Physical Therapists embraced the challenge of performing pediatric and orthopedic evaluations with language barriers, decrease access to medical records, and less experience in clinical environments. I could say it was successful because of the cultural competency it provided the students as they learned the importance of a needs assessment, understood cultural barriers, and saw the impact of disability in Tanzania first-hand. I’m sure everyone would also agree we were also successful in learning basic Swahili, learning everything from “pumpkin” to “two eggs, please.”
Of special note, our group was wildly successful in our clinical assessments and interventions at both sites. We were blessed with donations of therapeutic materials from Stony Brook professors, clinics in the United States, and companies such as Cascade DAFO. One of our greatest clinical successes was thanks to duct tape and pool noodles. When I told the Student Physical Therapists to bring these materials, I’m relatively certain they thought I was crazy. However, they learned the importance of creative solutions when there’s limited resources when we used duct tape and pool noodles to adjust a car seat wheelchair! This wheelchair from Mobility Care made out of a car seat required adjustments to better fit a young boy who had suffered meningitis and now presents with postural asymmetries.
At Step-by-Step Learning Centre, we emphasized the importance of teaching the teachers and caregivers the skills to care for children with special needs. One of the young boys in the school presents with athetoid cerebral palsy with a strong desire to be mobile. This smiling boy was accompanied by his primary caretaker—his 21-year-old brother—throughout the program with the goal to acquire the skills to better care for his brother. The staff at SSLC had specific questions for positioning, diaper changing, and helping this student be more mobile to maximize participation with the other students. With Cascade DAFO’s donation of orthotics and braces, we fit the student with a pair of AFO’s that resulted in standing and walking around the school! The young boy was so proud of his braces, and thanked us for his new shoes that enabled improved mobility. Other students, caregivers, and teachers all joined in to motivate this boy to walk with assistance once his new braces were fit properly.
Seeing the teachers and caregivers connect the dots between the information we provided and each individual student was invaluable. They took information about the different presentations of the umbrella diagnosis of “cerebral palsy,” and immediately applied it to treatment interventions such as “how to release a spastic hand.” They asked plenty of appropriate questions, and we educated, educated, educated. It was truly incredible.
Planning for the Future
A sustainable model for outreach is the goal for all future programs in Tanzania. By servicing the communities via needs-based assessment and a focus on educating the locals, I plan to not only to provide a service, but enable a continuation of growth. Our 2017 Stony Brook group spent a lot of time documenting evaluations and prescribed interventions so future groups can build on the recommendations. We also discussed future plans with each service site to make sure we maintain alignment with the visions of the centers we are involved with.
There are endless possibilities for outreach in Tanzania. As we continue our outreach efforts, more communities in need have surfaced. Future trips will continue utilizing local resources and connecting communities together.
Advice for Group Leaders and Students
Ask Questions. It’s important to understand the context of the culture and people you’re serving. No matter how silly a question seems, people are usually willing to answer!
Assess the Need. This is critical to success in charitable work. Dive deep with the communities you’re working with to get a full picture of their vision and current plans of development. When educating others, it’s also a good idea to find out what they already know, then build on their knowledge.
Stay Organized and Keep Records. This year, our group worked hard to document our evaluations and recommended interventions. This is critical for the sites we served so they can remember the recommendations, and also for future outreach groups. Always measure progress, update records, and work towards short and long-term goals!
Utilize Local Resources. When traveling abroad, it’s easy to think about all the items you should bring from the United States—assistive devices, tools, and other materials. Yet, these items may not be usable by the locals. Further, if the item breaks, how will they fix it or replace it? Improvising and connecting with local businesses supports the economy of the country you’re serving and allows for greater sustainability.
Stay Open-Minded. Most of the time, nothing will go as planned. This will be frustrating and confusing. Yet, there are creative solutions to almost any problem, if you stay open and curious. Try not to be too consumed by thoughts of how it would be different at home (in the western world), but instead stay open to whatever may surface in the new environment.
Stay Present, but Think About the Future. It’s easy to be overwhelmed in a new culture and environment due to culture shock. Of course, there’s usually a lot of emotional experiences to process, but it’s important to stay present with the people you’re serving. By being present, it opens up emotional space to connect more deeply. Most likely, there’s going to be thoughts of “what’s next” – what can you do in the future? Make note of the needs you’ve assessed, what your heart says the answers could be, and make a plan to continue progression into the future!
Join Us! Please contact EDU Africa if you’re interested in contributing to these missions. Personally, I know I’ll be back to Tanzania as my work there is far from done. As Conor McGregor says:
“I’m not going to get somewhere and say, ‘OK, I’m done.’ Success is never final; I’ll just keep on going. The same way as failure never being fatal. Just keep going. I’m going to the stars and then past them.”
Kristen Connolly, PT, DPT, WFR
Kristen is a Doctor of Physical Therapy practicing in the United States. She grew up in New York, but her love of the mountains and outdoors brought her to Washington State. Kristen’s passion in rehabilitation and medicine is pediatrics, yet she has experience working with a variety of populations. She volunteered in Tanzania as a licensed Physical Therapist for the first time in April 2016, and her passion for teaching and traveling has inspired.
her to continue leading educational modules and programs abroad. When Kristen is not lending a helping hand, she’s writing, taking photos, drawing, or outside climbing and mountaineering! Kristen’s mission is to grow and learn alongside individuals from other cultures and backgrounds in effort to create sustainable, conscious outreach to communities in need