July 15, 2013
For the past five years, children at an orphanage in rural
Guatemala have benefited from the expertise and compassion of a St.
John’s University professor who specializes in speech disorders.
Nancy Colodny, Ed.D., C.C.C.-S.L.P., and her students volunteer
there each May to help children whose health problems hinder their
ability to swallow.
Colodny, an Associate Professor of
Communication Sciences and Disorders, has made the hands-on
experience part of a graduate-level course, Management of Pediatric
Dysphagia in a Developing Country. The class represents a
collaboration between the offices of Academic
Global Studies. As a complement to class work, Colodny conducts
12 student volunteers to the facility in Guatemala for 10 days
In Guatemala, Colodny explained, the students, who returned on May
30, were exposed to medical conditions and practices they may not
encounter in this country. Children at the orphanage are at risk
for dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, which can lead to
malnutrition, choking and pneumonia. "Our goal is to develop a
learning community,” she said. “Our students learn theories and
practical applications and serve as role models for correct feeding
practices for the hospital’s staff.”
Students often join Colodny for return trips to Guatemala during
the year. While this provides a great advantage to the students,
she noted that the greatest benefit is for the facility’s patients
In the midst of their day, students not only assist with feeding,
but also change diapers, wash dishes, mop floors and help in any
way they can. They also spend time interacting with the children,
most of whom have very little human contact.
Several students agreed that while it might be initially
disheartening to meet so many children facing complex health
issues, there were many happy moments and small victories. Elena
Damiani ’14G recalled a nine-year-old boy named Henry whom everyone
believed had limited communication skills.
One day, she recalled, "Henry said, 'Hola,' and I was in shock.
Then he asked, 'How are you?' in English, and I called everyone
over. It was amazing to discover that he could speak Spanish and
English. There were other children who couldn't speak as well as
Henry, but could communicate in their own way."
Despite their conditions, observed Vanessa Galeano '13G, "The
second you interact with them, the kids come to life. All of them
are capable of laughing hysterically, and it's crazy how resilient
they are. It's very nice to see, and puts things back home in
perspective." She hopes to return in the future. "You want to build
relationships and provide some consistency. It's so important for
the kids to see a familiar face."
"I will remember their smiles forever," said Nina Levine '13G. She
added, "I kept thinking that life is different every day for me,
but for these kids every day is the same. No matter what we're
doing they're probably there sitting in their cribs [with little
"For me,” Damiani observed, “it was a reaffirmation of why we're
studying pediatric dysphagia. I love making a difference in
people's lives, and this program takes it to a different
Since the trips began, Colodny has brought over 800 specialized
spoons, therapeutic feeding bottles and a variety of other needed
items to the facility. She also has participated in fund raising to
purchase special medical equipment such as pulse oximeters and
Colodny applauds the University for its extensive support of the
program. "The beauty of it is the collaboration between Global
Studies and Academic Service-Learning,” she said. “Both offices
have embraced the program and have asked me to give presentations.
It's wonderful to have that kind of support, and the students feel
that as well."