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A Life-Changing Volunteer Experience

Boats on a St. Lucia beach
Photo by Gila Cohen-Shaw

Like many SLPs, mission is important to Gila Cohen-Shaw, a lead clinician with PresenceLearning who has specialized in early child development. And so, for a recent milestone birthday, she looked for a way that she could show her gratitude for the blessings in her life and give something back. She found such an opportunity through Global Volunteers to participate with a group called Reaching Children’s Potential in St. Lucia, which trains caregivers and deploys them throughout the island to work with families and their children. As a telepractitioner, she had the flexibility to travel for two weeks to make a difference.

Anse La Raye Home
Photo by Gila Cohen-Shaw

St. Lucia is a beautiful Caribbean island popularly known for its luxury resorts and dramatic landscape. There is, however, another side to paradise: in the area where Gila volunteered, Anse La Raye, the unemployment rate is 85%, there is no indoor plumbing, and high rates of HIV and Zika persist. Homes have dirt or plywood floors, are built from scrap, and have no refrigeration. St. Lucia itself has one of the lowest IQ rates in the world. There is no free public education, and those who do achieve an education reach a 10th grade level and tend to leave the island for better opportunities.

There are also few resources for people with special needs — there are two SLPs in the entire country — and a low level of awareness about child development. Gila’s role was to train Reaching Children’s Potential caregivers and mothers in Anse La Raye with the goal that her work would be sustainable when she left.

Photo by Gila Cohen-Shaw

One project involved Gila evaluating four children for speech issues. Because resources are so scarce on St. Lucia, Gila improvised a Goldman-Fristoe assessment with various flashcard p-5 bg-lightest mb-3s that she was able to round up and provided suggestions to both the preschool teacher who had contacted her as well as to one of the mothers.

Physical development is also an issue. The babies Gila encountered were not moving around or crawling, and were unable to open their palms. Though not an occupational therapist, Gila has access to an extensive network through her work with PresenceLearning. She relied upon training once provided to her by Elizabeth Haas, the Clinical Practice Director for Occupational Therapy at PresenceLearning. Gila recalled and relied upon on various exercises and activities that she could train to caregivers and mothers. Creativity again came into play, with manipulatives improvised from what was available.

When it was time for Gila to return to the United States, she was told “You have planted a seed, and now you need to return and watch it grow.” Today she serves as a board member for the organization, and plans to return to St. Lucia in March.

Man selling bananas
Photo by Gila Cohen-Shaw

Ultimately, as much as Gila was able to do during her time in St. Lucia, she feels she gained so much more than she gave in terms of her gratitude, perspective, and appreciation of the culture in which she was immersed. In St. Lucia, “it takes a village” is more than a saying, it is a true way of life, and something Gila saw from her first meeting. A group of moms had gotten together to plan an event, and they wanted to make a cake for the kids. Gila watched them collaborate and share: one woman could provide a couple eggs, another a cup of sugar, another some flour. In a place where people have so little, sharing, bartering, and simple generosity is woven into the social fabric. She herself was given a melon in gratitude — a gift that had a direct implication on the diet of the family who gave it to her.

Gila is actively looking for more volunteers to share their expertise in St. Lucia. While clinical skills are important, she says all that is really needed is to be a kind, caring person. If you would like more information, click here to email Gila.

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