African orphanages benefit from OT graduates' dedication

12 June 2009

It is common to be struck by a feeling of helplessness when thinking about problems such as world poverty, where it can feel like one person cannot make a difference. However, Jillian Hull, Michelle O'Sullivan and Tegan Davies have proven the opposite, finding a way to make a sustainable contribution to an African community by applying their Occupational Therapy skills.

In 2007, Michelle visited the Forever Angels Baby Home whilst in Tanzania, and recognised the great need for change. "In our final year of the OT course, Tegan and I developed, along with fellow peers, a community based rehabilitation program for Forever Angels Baby Home", she said. In 2008, when returning with both Jillian and Tegan, the girls were able to implement the program they had designed.

After graduating, the girls also volunteered through Kids Worldwide, on a program initially set up by Michelle's sister, Jo O'Sullivan. The program works with the Watoto Wa Africa and Hands of Mercy orphanages in Mwanza, Tanzania.

Jillian, Tegan and one of the children
Jillian, Tegan and one of the children

The majority of children in the orphanages are there as a result of losing parents to HIV/Aids or malaria, or being abandoned due to poverty.

The girls were responsible for teaching English and Mathematics, but also attending to children with special needs. More specifically, they were working with children that have obvious developmental delay leading to learning difficulties.

On arrival, Jillian & Tegan developed and put into practice the teaching program at Watoto Wa Africa, as there was not a structured model at the time.

'It was a good opportunity to use our OT skills and put a sustainable program in place," Jillian said. This process took around three weeks, which included testing each child's skill level. Once this was established volunteers were allocated a set of teaching tasks in order to develop the skills of each specific child.

Because all three of the girls had prior paediatric experience, they were able to assist and make recommendations based on their previous knowledge. This allowed them to test the skill levels of the children from a range of perspectives, such as attention span, motor skills, social skills and emotional well being.

Michelle with the children
Michelle with the children

Due to the differences between Western and African cultures, undertaking negotiations proved challenging and difficult. However, they were able to find a way to successfully develop and implement their programs. "The OT philosophy of client centred practice, gave us the unique base from which to interact with the local African community", said Jillian.

"There was one child, Robogo that we met, who could not speak and was experiencing seizures, but it took awhile to find out what was wrong with him," said Michelle. "We were able to finally get medical assistance...the doctor diagnosed him with severe malaria and absence seizures. He was subsequently treated properly and went from barely functioning to a very typical child who can speak, sing, run and smile".

Hearing stories like this demonstrates the significance of the work that they accomplished, something which they all value. All three girls are very proud of the way the program is now running, and have fond memories of their time there.

"I feel proud to know that we were able to make a positive contribution to the lives of the children", said Michelle.

Before they left Sydney, the girls did a lot of fundraising to raise money for the orphanages, and were heavily supported by lecturers and fellow OT students from Cumberland Campus.

Tegan at the orphanage
Tegan at the orphanage