Building a Better Health Service


Occupational Therapist enriched by Colombia experience

Paediatric Occupational Therapist Geraldine Shiels, (third from left) with the Abuelitas, staff and volunteers

Paediatric Occupational Therapist Geraldine Shiels, (third from left) with the Abuelitas, staff and volunteers

Volunteering in Columbia proved a humbling experience for one Irish healthcare worker who gave her time and medical expertise to help many of the marginalised people of the South American country.

Geraldine Shiels has been working as a paediatric occupational therapist since 2015, having graduated with a Masters from the University of Limerick. It was during her studies that she decided that she wanted to volunteer abroad.

“During one of my occupational therapy college placements, I worked with various community populations in a non-traditional occupational therapy setting which allowed me experience a broader approach to occupational therapy practice. This experience, along with my aspirations from my teenage years to volunteer abroad, motivated me to seek a volunteering role. My aim was to experience a different culture, to work with people living in marginalised conditions, to explore how occupational therapy could be implemented within a wider context, and challenge myself to develop and learn new skills,” explained Geraldine, who is based in St Luke’s Hospital in Clonmel.

She began the process by registering with International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) agency. IVHQ works with independent local organisations to receive volunteers, facilitate project placements, and provide accommodation throughout the duration of the programmes.

“I chose to volunteer in Colombia as it provided a range of placements which interested me. In addition, I have a number of South American friends living in Ireland. Their insights into South American social, cultural, economic and political aspects of life piqued my interest in pursuing a volunteering placement there. My application was successful and I was approved to volunteer with Emerging Voices, a non-profit organisation founded in 2007 and based in Bogotá,” she said.

“The planning and preparation work from my volunteering trip took approximately three months. I fundraised through coffee mornings, raffles, Irish traditional music sessions, and sponsorships from local businesses. In addition, travelling to South America required me to be immunised against a range of diseases and complete online IVHQ training. I undertook to learn basic Spanish to help me communicate.”

Colombia today is trying to rid itself from its troubled history of internal conflicts between governments, crime syndicates, armed forces and illegal drugs trade which began in the mid-1960s. This conflict has caused the internal displacement of families throughout the country. 

“During my placement, I stayed in accommodation in the south district of Bogotá with approximately 12 other volunteers from various countries. Emerging Voices provides placements for their volunteers with various local organisations in Bogotá. The projects run by these organisations aim to help to the poor and assist vulnerable groups,” said Geraldine.

She volunteered at an orphanage, which provides a home and childcare to over 100 orphan babies, toddlers, children and preteens; at two homes for boys aged between six and seventeen who would otherwise be living on the streets; and, finally, at a home for elderly ladies.

“In the orphanage, education programmes and learning through play and activities are provided to support the learning and development of each child. In addition, the children have access to healthcare services such as medical, nursing, dietetics, physiotherapy, and psychology. There I volunteered in one of the toddler rooms facilitating play, education, and feeding activities,” she said.

She explained that in the boys’ homes, many have experienced family home breakdown, desertion by caregivers, homelessness, substance abuse, physical abuse and self-harm. They are given access to a range of healthcare services such as psychology, social work, and dietetics in addition to attending education programmes. She facilitated educational programmes through English and leisure activities with teenage boys in the two homes.

Many of the elderly ladies, who are affectionately called ‘Abuelitas’ (grandmothers), do not have a family or have been left by their families who cannot afford to look after them anymore.

“As a paediatric occupational therapist, working with an older population challenged me to adapt my skills, for example grading activities such as salsa dancing lessons so that those with medical conditions and reduced mobility could participate. I spent the majority of my time volunteering with the Abuelitas which enabled me to learn about their lives, their transition to Santa Rosa, and their current participation within the community. Their stories provide an insight into how they overcame occupational deprivation which challenged their physical and mental health to regain the capacity to construct new lives for themselves,” said Geraldine.

She said the whole experience was extremely positive for her.

“It provided me with a wonderful opportunity to travel and meet many people, to challenge myself to communicate with limited Spanish, and draw on my occupation therapy skills in different contexts working with a range of people from toddlers, teenagers and older people. Each volunteer was made to feel welcomed by staff and service users on a daily basis,” she said.

“It was enlightening to see the resourcefulness of the Abuelitas in making their home in Santa Rosa, and forging new connections through meaningful work and leisure roles and participating in community life. The dignity of the Abuelitas and their gratefulness to each volunteer for spending time with them, and completing activities of daily living and leisure activities, struck a chord with me. It was a humbling experience to receive their heartfelt thanks and good wishes.”