As part of a year­long course, 14 phys­ical therapy stu­dents spent their spring break at the For His Chil­dren Orphanage in Ecuador, working with young patients who have cog­ni­tive and phys­ical disabilities.

Phys­ical therapy asso­ciate pro­fessor Lorna Hay­ward and clin­ical pro­fessor Ann Char­rette led the group of stu­dents, who treated chil­dren with Down syn­drome, cere­bral palsy and devel­op­mental delay. This fall, Hay­ward will lead another group of stu­dents to Cuer­navaca, Mexico, where they’ll work at an elder shelter and in two orphanages.

These clin­ical oppor­tu­ni­ties for expe­ri­en­tial learning are embedded into Northeastern’s under­grad­uate pro­gram in phys­ical therapy. At the Ecuado­rian orphanage, the stu­dents admin­is­tered pool therapy, screened chil­dren for dis­abil­i­ties and cre­ated obstacle courses to help chil­dren develop their motor skills.

It was amazing to work with these kids and see what quick gains they made,” said phys­ical therapy stu­dent Stephanie Nov­ello, who is in the fifth year of the six-​​year program.

The expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity gave stu­dents a chance to fur­ther develop their phys­ical therapy skills through hands-​​on work, and it may shape their career choices, said Hayward.

They told me the expe­ri­ence was life-​​changing,” she said, noting that the week­long trip helped raise stu­dents’ aware­ness of a for­eign cul­ture and of their role as health care professionals.

A lot of them might decide to do PT in a devel­oping country,” she said.

Nov­ello turned the ther­a­peutic exer­cises into game play, by asking chil­dren to reach for toys or to jump as high as they could in an effort to eval­uate their phys­ical development.

Working with kids is a lot dif­ferent than working with teens or adults,” she said. “If it’s not fun, they’re not going to do it.”

Some­times the little things made all the dif­fer­ence in the world.

Nov­ello bought a new pair of shoes for a 4 year-​​old girl with a genetic bone dis­order that made walking, let alone run­ning and jumping, nearly impossible.

The shoes realigned her feet, enabling her to walk back­ward. In May, she’ll have cor­rec­tive surgery on her legs, but Novello’s already e-​​mailed the orphanage a post-​​operative reha­bil­i­ta­tion plan.

There was no limit to what she learned, Nov­ello said, adding, “Nothing I say can do jus­tice to this experience.”