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Emily Kibler – PRO Speech Therapy in Fiji

Emily and local school children working together in a classroom

My name is Emily Kibler and I am in my second and final year of my graduate program in speech-language pathology at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had the joy and privilege of getting to volunteer with Projects Abroad in the beautiful land of Fiji in May 2017.

At my school I am a Ben Henneke Research Fellow, and I was encouraged to spend my short summer break going abroad to conduct research for my Master’s thesis. I looked into several different volunteer programs trying to find the perfect match where I could volunteer and conduct my research. Projects Abroad was the clear winner due to the location (I mean c’mon - it’s Fiji!), amazing connections for my project that would allow me to conduct research meeting all of my necessary criteria, and the reviews/stories I read on the Internet. I had to do extensive paperwork and applications for my school, but eventually I was cleared and ready to go! Projects Abroad staff kept in frequent contact with me, answering all my annoying questions and even working closely with my university regarding the payment process. My coordinator was flexible, friendly and extremely helpful!

My Speech Therapy placement

Emily plays with local school children

I loved my placement! I was on my own as a speech therapist graduate student (which is to be expected as I was believed to be the only one in the entire country at the time of my visit) and, as the only volunteer at the school, the majority of my time was well spent there. I will admit that I was a little overwhelmed and stressed at first. I didn’t bring materials (even though I totally should have and I highly recommend doing so) and I was so out of my element without my supervisors, professors, classmates, and closet full of handy materials. However, I am so thankful for the challenge! It pulled me outside of my comfort zone and stretched my thinking. I had to get creative and think independently without using other people’s knowledge and advice as a crutch.

Emily with children at her placement

The head teacher and all of the teachers at the school were helpful and friendly in true Fiji fashion! They willingly participated in my research and answered all of my questions as I informally assessed the children. This was an important component of my work because all of the children with obvious “speech problems” were labeled with a generic speech problem diagnosis. In order to recommend intervention techniques and conduct my research, I had to get a more descriptive analysis of what they were having trouble with.

The children I saw showed signs of a variety of potential diagnoses such as speech sound delay, speech sound disorder, autism spectrum disorder, language disorder, voice disorder, and speech/language delays as a result of hearing loss. Many of the kids were nonverbal and lacked a real way to communicate with their teachers and peers. I focused heavily on three specific classrooms so I was able to really get to know those children. I taught teachers how to understand audiograms, work on sounds, facilitate language, and promote nonverbal communication using pictures. I also did games and activities with the children individually and as a group to promote their speech, language, and literacy development. I left behind resources and detailed notes on each child to assist the teachers and the next speech therapist volunteer.

My host family

Emily with some local school children

One of my favorite things about my time in Fiji was getting to experience life as a local. Never before had I been so truly immersed in another country’s culture. I slept like a local, ate like a local, rode the bus like a local, visited the market like a local, and so much more. The best part of all was my incredible host parents, Anil and Padma. They were so welcoming and friendly. Padma cooked delicious meals with lots of variety and they both always made sure that I had enough to eat. My house was very clean and comfortable, and I felt at home. I miss my conversations and Indian soap operas with my host parents. They were some of the kindest people I have ever met!

Support from Projects Abroad staff

Speech Therapy volunteer Emily with local school children in Fiji

Even though you hope you never have to deal with sickness while abroad, sometimes there is no avoiding it and it’s good to have support when you need it the most. On my first Thursday in the 2 weeks that I was in Fiji, I got a bug bite on my right hand. I didn’t think anything of it until the next morning when I woke up with my arm red, swollen, in pain, and unable to fully extend my fingers or lower my arm. I tried to get ready for school but ended up almost passing out walking down the hall. My sweet host parents rushed to my side, and we contacted the Projects Abroad Country Director who came right away. In such a scary time, she kept me calm. She reassured me, comforted me, and took me to the doctor. The doctor told me I had a bite (it wasn’t from anything poisonous as Fiji apparently doesn’t have anything poisonous), but that it had gotten infected. Fortunately, all it needed was an antibiotic, and I felt better the next day! I’m forever thankful to Karishma for staying with me the entire time, taking care of my every need, and supporting me (both emotionally and physically) throughout the entire process. There isn’t a price tag for the comfort that gave my family back home!

All in all, volunteering in Fiji was a dream come true and I am so thankful for the experience. I hope to go back one day, and I highly encourage everyone (especially speech therapists!) to go and experience it.

Emily Kibler

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