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Occupational Therapy student Arianna Harris

Arianna Harris OT '19 On Her Long-Term Commitment to Volunteer Work in El Salvador

  • Arianna Harris OT ’19 is already finding ways to give back: every summer since her freshman year of high school, the New Hampshire native has traveled to El Salvador to volunteer in a single village, San Jose Villanueva. We sat down with Harris to learn how her experiences have shaped her outlook.

    Hi there! First off, thank you for agreeing to talk with us about your experiences as an MCPHS occupational therapy student and volunteer. What initially drew you to occupational therapy as a career path?

    My aunt is an occupational therapist, so I started thinking about that career path while I was still in high school. I was doing a lot of work with children with autism, trying to decide if I wanted to pursue a behavior or a therapy track, when I traveled to El Salvador for the first time. While there, I met a six-year-old girl with spina bifida who really solidified my desire to work with therapy. This was about eight years ago; she is fourteen now, living with her mom in a very rural community. There are no accessible educational opportunities for her, because the schools are unable to provide the kind of care she needs. She uses a donated wheelchair. Her mom is unable to work because providing care is a full-time job. But she was so happy and full of life that it was a pleasure to get to know her. I’ve been back every summer since, and take her to the beach. I’m even friends with her mom on social media, so we keep in touch.

    That’s a real commitment! Tell us a little more about the volunteer organization that has facilitated this experience.

    It’s called Epilogos Charities, Inc., and it is based out of Nashua, New Hampshire. I became a board member about two years ago, so I spend a lot of time working with them. The organization is about fourteen years old, and our mission statement is simply “To work with the people of San Jose Villanueva to better their lives.” That means volunteering at health clinics, building homes and schools, working to get clean water to the village, etc.

    That sounds like a lot of work! What are some of the ways you’ve helped out over the years?

    Last year I led my first group of travelers as a trip leader and coordinator. We focused specifically on schools through a program that we started called “Adopt a Classroom.” We identify outstanding teachers, and donors can give $200 to adopt their classrooms, thus sending supplies to those teachers. We’ve adopted twelve classrooms to date, and there are more coming up. All the students in that classroom write thank-you notes, which are sent back to the donors.

    We also set up scholarships for students; in El Salvador, the public schools charge for uniforms, shoes and books, none of which are provided. Our donors give between $150 - $180 to cover those expenses and close the gap for families who can’t afford to pay. Donors are connected with their students via pictures and letters, and they can continue to provide scholarships throughout the student’s career.

    Tell us a bit about what you observed while working there: did El Salvador surprise you? Challenge you?

    It really stands out that we work with and not just for the people. If we build a home, the whole family and community comes out to help, and are so thankful for the little bit of help that we provide. That’s a major motivator in bringing me back year after year. It really makes me appreciate things a little more, and opens my eyes to the ways I can help others, beyond just through my job in the United States.

    Did your experience there change anything about the way you view your future practice here?

    I think it has made me realize that I won’t know everyone’s story. For instance, if I’m working in a pediatric clinic, I won’t know what the kids are going home to, or what resources they might lack. That’s part of the MCPHS coursework, but until you really have those experiences, it’s difficult not to assume that everyone has the same resources and opportunities as you.

    What’s next for you?

    Well, I’m definitely going to return to El Salvador. Every year I go back I see the same people, so my relationships and connections grow, and I can see how our help has changed people’s lives. For instance, I was able to bring my friend with spina bifida a new wheelchair the last time I was there, and use my mom’s healthcare connections to bring along some people who specialize in pediatric disabilities. We were able to send two students on scholarship to the local Catholic school, which has better resources and more teachers. A Floridian friend of mine and I are now making plans for future clinics, forming the relationships we’ll need to make them happen.

    In the full-time, two-year Master of Science in Occupational Therapy program on the Manchester, NH, campus, students work alongside professional experts in advanced simulation laboratories and experience a wide range of clinical experiences on and off campus.