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VCU volunteers help critically ill children from developing countries feel welcome in Richmond


Ana Sophia Balanos, a 2-year-old from Belize, has undergone three major craniofacial surgeries at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU since she was brought to Richmond earlier this summer by the World Pediatric Project. She has one more surgery to go, but she is giggling and excited as she receives a visit from Spanish professor Anita Nadal and her Virginia Commonwealth University students.

“¡Hola, princesa!” Nadal says, as she gives Ana Sophia a picture book as a present. “We’re here to spoil la princesa. Es muy importante.”

Nadal, a professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and students taking her class on understanding language and Latin American cultures this summer have been volunteering with the World Pediatric Project, which brings critically ill children from developing countries to the United States for medical care.

Nadal and her students have been visiting with the children and their mothers, conversing with them in Spanish and teaching them basic English phrases, bringing the children toys and coloring books, and generally trying to make them feel welcome in a foreign country amid often difficult medical procedures.

“When the patients come with the World Pediatric Project, they’re usually here for two or three months. They’re here for very serious surgeries. When they’re here, they’re essentially alone, day in and day out. They [often] don’t speak English,” Nadal said. “To have VCU students, with their great attitudes, to come and talk to them and play with the children is just wonderful.”

[VCU student Naomi Lauture (left) and Spanish professor Anita Nadal (right) talk with 5-year-old Saul and his mother Evelin Sazo at the Doorways hospitality house. (Brian McNeill)]
VCU student Naomi Lauture (left) and Spanish professor Anita Nadal (right) talk with 5-year-old Saul and his mother Evelin Sazo at the Doorways hospitality house. (Brian McNeill)

Spanish-speaking volunteers such as Nadal and her students are helpful for making families feel at home, while certified medical translators with VCU Health explain medical and technical information to patients who are not fluent in English.

Betty Balanos, Ana Sophia’s mother, said she is grateful her daughter is getting the care she needs and is thankful for the support.

“I think if we were in Belize, she would have only had one surgery. She will have four here. That’s good. They think she will be OK,” Betty Balanos said. “She is doing very well. She is very happy and laughing. It will be good that she will be healthy soon.”

“The kindness of the people here makes you more comfortable,” she added. “Everyone has made us feel like we’re not alone.”

Harper Lorencki, director of volunteers for the World Pediatric Project, said the organization would not be able to provide the level of care that it does without the help of dedicated volunteers like Nadal and her students.

““The kindness of the people here makes you more comfortable. Everyone has made us feel like we’re not alone.””

“The World Pediatric Project connects these children with the medical volunteers and hospitals who donate their talent and their services, but it’s the non-medical volunteers who help the children and their parent to pass the long hours spent in the hospital or back at Doorways while the child recuperates,” she said.

“I think that this [volunteer] role is not only important but integral, as we know that happy children tend to recuperate from surgery faster,” she said. “When these parents come to the United States for surgery they leave behind an entire family and community support system. It can be a very scary and lonely time. Meeting a volunteer who can speaks their language and can provide that shoulder to lean on makes a world of different for these families.”

Naomi Lauture, a senior international studies major with a concentration in social justice in the School of World Studies, was among the students who visited with Ana Sophia and her mother last week at the hospital.

“I’m just starting to learn Spanish,” she said. “All I want to do [in the future] is travel and work on human rights and women’s rights and children’s rights. So I just want as much experience as I can get. This is the type of thing I’ve been passionate about. I thought this would be a great start to help here at home before trying to help people in other countries.”

After spending time with Ana Sophia and her mother, Nadal and her students walked a few blocks to the Doorways — which provides lodging and support to the patients receiving care through the World Pediatric Project — to see Saul Sazo, a 5-year-old from Guatemala who is also undergoing craniofacial surgeries, as well as surgeries on his hands and feet.

Along the way, VCU student William Onweller, a junior environmental studies major, stops to buy Saul a milkshake from Wendy’s, having remembered from a previous visit that Saul loves chocolate.

“Saul is really shy,” Onweller said. “It’s really just about being there to make them feel more comfortable.”

Onweller, who learned Spanish while serving in the Army, spoke with Sazo’s mother, Evelin Sazo, in Spanish while Saul watched cartoons on an iPad nearby and drank his chocolate milkshake.

“[Saul] is doing much better,” Evelin Sazo said, as Nadal interpreted. “There are very nice people here. Very charitable.”

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