On a broad porch overlooking coffee farms outside Antigua, Guatemala, small children played happily with toys. They were waiting their turn for a pre-literacy test that resembled yet another game at the Family Development Center run by Common Hope, a nonprofit dedicated to improving lives and communities. Their mothers, though, hovered anxiously in the background. While the diagnostic test battery, administered by University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students from the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, was meant only to evaluate the kids’ language skills before they enrolled in a new literacy program, the mothers desperately wanted their children to perform well. Some had walked miles along dirt roads to get there, taking precious time off from families and jobs. Though many were illiterate themselves, they saw education as the way out of rural poverty.
“What I learned — what we all learned — from this is that mothers everywhere love their children to pieces,” says Michelle Quinn, Associate Clinical Professor, who led four graduate students on the weeklong trip to Antigua in January 2012. “Their love was so moving to me — and so motivating.”
In February 2012, Quinn received the WSHA Outstanding Service Award by the Wisconsin Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Association for her work in Guatemala, as well as for her other volunteer efforts and dedication to the allied speech-language-hearing professions.
Quinn traces her initial interest in the Common Hope project to a burgeoning desire to work with the poor. She had followed this impulse in her personal life, volunteering with underserved populations, and gradually the thinking began to permeate her professional life as well.
The UW-Madison team conducts testing outside the Common Hope Library.“
I had this long-standing heart’s desire to take what we do so well here in Wisconsin and share it more broadly,” she says. “I am constantly inspired by the idealism of the younger generation, and how much UW students want to make a difference both on campus and elsewhere. I realized this was a direction I could take our CSD students.”
The literacy program launched by Common Hope presented an ideal opportunity to provide students with diagnostic training. The nonprofit, founded in 1986 by a Minnesota couple committed to helping Guatemalan parents educate their children, planned to launch a new dialogic reading program with very young children and their mothers. While the organization had plenty of experience and success helping kids age 7 and up, its staff wasn’t trained to evaluate language skills in younger children.
Quinn’s proposal came at just the right time. Common Hope welcomed Quinn and four UW-Madison graduate students to Antigua in January 2012 to assess the language and pre-literacy skills of 40 pre-school-age children. Common Hope administrators, Quinn says, were “astounded” by the turnout from local mothers.
“They could see the value in us coming back to gather data to evaluate the book sharing program,” says Quinn.
She plans to return this January, with the same four students: Amanda Murphy, Ruby Braxton, Rose Heckenkamp, and Caitlin Klukas, plus four new ones. Last year, the graduate students paid for the trip themselves, Quinn says. This year, the Emma M. Allen Speech Pathology Fellowship Fund will provide much-needed support for the trip.
Students’ feedback reflects how much they valued the opportunity.
“I felt that this experience taught me about working with families with limited resources,” wrote Amanda Murphy. “The love and dedication that the Guatemalan mothers showed their children despite challenging home situations was inspiring, and I learned many valuable lessons in understanding and empathy that I know will generalize to multiple clinical situations over the years.”