By Greg Russell
On a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, Marilyn Wark found a mystery, one that
helped open her eyes to the plight of the hearing-impaired in Third World countries.
“The community of San Pedro where the CAES School (for the Deaf) is located has an
extremely high incidence of hearing loss,” said Wark, director of Speech-Language
Pathology Services in the U of M’s School of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology
(AUSP). “At this point, they do not know why, but it is suspected that it has to do
with limited prenatal care and the medications that are available to the public without
prescription. There is very little preventative medicine in the country.”
Wark and Jennifer Taylor, AUSP clinical assistant professor, are trying to do something
about this problem: they and six AUSP students joined Loewenberg School of Nursing’s
spring break mission trip to the Caribbean island to provide free health care services
to the needy. The School of Nursing has traveled to the Dominican Republic for five
years and has treated and educated tens of thousands of mostly lower- to no-income
individuals. AUSP is planning to continue providing services in upcoming years and
hopes to have a similar impact.
Part of AUSP’s first trip was “fact-finding.” Some of what was found was surprising.
Impoverished residents of the Dominican Republic wait to receive health care services
provided by the U of M.
“The thing I found most striking was that there are only four audiologists in the
whole country to serve the population,” Taylor said. “It was also difficult to believe
that there is such a lack of funding for hearing aids for the children at the deaf
school where we were and that many did not have them. It is a beautiful place and
those that work at the school and with the school are amazing people trying to do
everything they can for the children and their community.”
Taylor said the two speech and four audiology students who went on the trip made an
immediate impression on the CAES School for the Deaf.
“We were able to fit earmolds, perform hearing tests, troubleshoot minor hearing aid
problems, leave supplies and train the teachers how to check and fix minor hearing
Wark said the teachers at the school have little education regarding working with
children who are deaf or who have special needs.
“They asked for a workshop to cover how to teach the students to listen and attend
to sounds now that they have hearing aids and how to facilitate their speech,” she
said. “They also wanted suggestions for teaching literacy skills. So the speech-language
pathology students provided a workshop for the teachers. The next day, the teachers
asked that we observe them in the classroom and give them feedback on their attempts
to incorporate what they had learned in the workshop.”
Wark said she was also surprised at how few books were available to children.
“When we were talking with the teachers about teaching literacy to the children, we
asked if they read to the children. Apparently it is not in their culture to do much
reading of stories. We then asked if they had books that they could read to them.
They showed us a ‘library,’ which consisted of two small shelves of books primarily
in English and French.
“That evening we went to the store and bought books for the children in Spanish. The
next day, we showed a teacher how to read the book to a small group of young children.
As she began to read the book, the youngsters sitting on the floor around her began
to inch closer and closer to her to see the book. They were so engaged in the story.
The wonderful thing was that the other teachers saw the students’ reaction and commented
that they would begin reading to the students in their classrooms.”
Wark said the six AUSP students on the trip came away with a feeling of “purpose.”
“On the professional side, they were able to contribute their knowledge and problem
solve how to provide the needed services in less than optimal conditions. I do think
each of them felt a sense of purpose and became aware of a broader need of their services
than they had ever imagined.”
Taylor said the decision to accompany the nursing school came about in response to
a request from students.
“Prospective and current students have been asking for years if our program offered
a study abroad/mission trip. The answer had always been, ‘Not at this time.’ I sat
down with Dean Maurice Mendel and we decided it was something we needed to do.”
Wark said she was thankful to nursing professor Lawrette Axley, who coordinates the
biannual School of Nursing trip, for the opportunity to participate.
“I want to thank all of the individuals who contributed items and money to make this
trip successful. And a big thanks to Dr. Axley and the Foundation for Peace who helped
with the arrangements.”
Axley’s mission trips are now highly anticipated events in the Dominican Republic:
oftentimes children in impoverished villages come running to greet her nursing school
students as they arrive by bus.
AUSP’s plan to lead more trips to the island includes providing additional services