Theresa Repole – Physiotherapy in South Africa
Five years ago, I watched the film “We Bought a Zoo” and it quickly became my favorite movie, but aside from that it introduced me to this quote that I have since chosen to live every day by. Benjamin Mee says to his kids, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it”… and that is how this story begins. I would have to say my twenty seconds of insane courage was hitting submit on my application because if I got accepted, I knew I could not back down from the biggest adventure of my life to date. And although there was no real embarrassing bravery that took place in those first twenty seconds of this adventure (except for some high pitched shriek I made as I hit the submit button), I know I made up for it in Cape Town, South Africa, as I attempted to immerse myself into the city and culture.
My name is Theresa Repole and I just finished my second year of college here in the United States. As my last semester of my second year was drawing to a close, I knew I wanted to travel over summer vacation. While researching places to visit, I stumbled across the Projects Abroad website and I almost immediately decided that my travels would be with them because of the unique opportunity to volunteer in a Physiotherapy project (my intended career choice) while experiencing a new country and culture.
My South African host family
Soon after landing in Cape Town, I felt welcomed as a Projects Abroad staff member picked me up and drove me to my host family’s home. We talked about my life back in the States and all I hoped to experience and see in Cape Town. As we pulled up to my host family’s home, my host parents walked outside to greet me and I knew right then that I would feel at home... well as close to home as one can feel being over 12,500 km/7,800 miles away from home. I lived with 15 other volunteers from all around the world at one point (volunteers were constantly coming and going), which may sound overwhelming, but I would not have wanted it any other way. There was always someone who wanted to hang out or do some sightseeing with you. On top of that, I have made friendships that I will forever treasure and will last a lifetime.
My physiotherapy placement
My project was at the Friends Day Centre on the Alexandra Hospital grounds in Maitland in the Western Cape. Each morning I was picked up by a Projects Abroad staff member and driven to work. Two other volunteers that I lived with were also at this project location however they were focusing on occupational therapy with the children. The Friends Day Centre is run in a similar manner to a school, but is more like a care facility. I wish there were words to describe how wonderful the staff is there.
I primarily worked with one class because of their need for physiotherapy. The students in the class were all wheelchair bound and non-verbal. It was heartbreaking to see, but it really makes you think just how lucky you are. These kids never failed to amaze me though. They always had a smile on their faces and they responded to me so well which left me with a feeling like no other. All of them were so bright and knew exactly what you were saying to them and understood. I learned the importance of keeping them engaged at all points, so this included talking them through their therapy sessions or singing (awfully) along to the radio; that always got a giggle out of them. The therapists and teachers were always more than willing to answer any of the questions I had about any of the particular exercises or stretches we were doing with the kids.
The day center has a Jacuzzi which is used to help with the physiotherapy. The therapist explained to me that the heat and the water allow the children to relax and we can better stretch them than when we stretch them in the classroom. While helping the therapists in the Jacuzzi, I got to work with the students from my classroom as well as the other students at the facility. I gained so much experience working with kids of various ages and various levels of mobility and function. I learned and experienced more than I could have ever hoped for at my project not only in the area of physiotherapy, but also about myself (as silly as that may sound).
The volunteering was so eye opening. It really makes you realize just how privileged we are here in the States. The resources were so limited and outdated compared to ours. However, the staff makes up for that with all of their care and passion for their students.
Travelling around South Africa
There was no shortage in time for exploring the beautiful Cape Town. I finished work early enough so that I could go on a hike or some sort of sightseeing before going home to enjoy dinner with the other volunteers and talk about our work days. The weekends were always packed with activities like going on a 3-day Garden Route tour which included bungee jumping and a safari, shark cage diving, more hiking, and eating more than I ever thought possible at The Old Biscuit Mill on Saturday mornings. Each sunset, whether I was sitting on the beach or up on top of a mountain, was more breath taking then the next... and please do not get me started on the sun rising over the mountain tops.
I cannot thank the staff of Projects Abroad enough for all their help in the days leading up to my departure for Cape Town and while I was there, whether it was answering my never ending questions on what to bring or their help in showing me how to get around in the city. They were always making sure I was comfortable at my project and my host family’s home with phone calls and visits.