As you may have heard (we have been shouting about it!) we recently got through the finals of The Latin UK Awards (LUKAs). Therapies Unite has been nominated for the Charity/Human Rights Organisation of the Year and I have been nominated for Charity/Human Rights Worker of the Year. As a result I have been inspired to re-visit the history of Therapies Unite and I wanted to share the story of why I started it and also let you know about all the wonderful things that have been achieved over the past 3 years.
I am a qualified physiotherapist and first visited Puerto Vallarta in 2009 on a 4 month volunteer project. Although I was preparing myself for this experience, I was shocked to see the vast differences between healthcare and rehabilitation services in Mexico compared to the UK. For the poorer communities access to these services is severely limited and often involves a lengthy and costly process. The majority of children I worked with had severe physical deformities, reduced life expectancy and poor quality of life. This was not necessarily due to their disability directly but the effect of not having access to specialised equipment and rehabilitation services. At the end of my 4 months I thought to myself ‘what have I done; did I actually help anyone? Did I manage to change anyone’s life?’ The answer, I suspected, was no. There were many volunteers helping in Puerto Vallarta but I had to ask myself; what were we all doing? Were we making a difference or simply offering a makeshift solution? I returned to the UK feeling very dissatisfied and frustrated and decided I just had to do more. This was the beginning of Therapies Unite.
I thought long and hard about how I could make a difference, how to change the lives of the disabled people I had met and decided that instead of having a volunteer come and work with the children, it would be much better for a skilled volunteer to come and work with the local medical professionals, therapists, teachers and caregivers. This would enable the development of existing rehabilitation services and allow those involved to work directly with the families to empower them to give therapy to their child at home. It was also important to me to try and unite the existing centres, schools and organisations that offered help to people with disabilities so that they could not only learn from each other but grow together.
I returned to Puerto Vallarta in 2011, 2012, 2013 (twice) and I am currently in Mexico, returning in mid-April. I come for a period of 6 months to work voluntarily in the projects we run and to develop our services. I then return to the UK to fundraise, support from a distance and to plan my next trip. Over the past 3 years we have grown so much and there are moments when I cannot quite believe how far this little idea has come. I am the founder and director of Therapies Unite and I have a very small team of three volunteers that work alongside me in Mexico. In the UK I rely solely on the support of friends and family. All of the funds that we raise go directly into the projects and we have no overheads.
The following is a brief overview of the things that I have managed to achieve since starting Therapies Unite. In 2012 I organised and funded a free Halliwick Hydrotherapy Course for 26 local professionals and non-professionals, who were trained for 2 weeks in a special form of water therapy. We have since set up a water therapy club called Catrin’s Penguins and currently give therapy to a group of 23 children a week. This is an incredible project as children and adults with all kinds of disabilities can enter the water and just be free. The children who are confined to wheelchairs and have never experienced the feeling of movement simply love to be moved in the water, as well as being able to splash and play. For other children in the group, they are able to learn how to control their bodies in the water and how to swim. Over the past 2 years we have helped to fund the restoration of two local pools back to working order which has enabled 170 children and adults with disabilities access to a pool. We continue to support the people who attended our training courses as well as work with families and new volunteers to help them learn about therapy in the water. Click here to see Catrin’s Penguins in action!
Since 2011 I have worked one day a week in a special needs school setting up a physiotherapy program. I evaluate and create home exercise programs for the children as well as run group and individual exercise programs. This year we started dance classes and now attend twice a week, once for dance and once for therapy. Mexico is alive with music and the children have so much natural rhythm, they love to dance and actually, I think they end up teaching us!
2013-2014 has been our busiest year as we shifted our attention to Postural Management. I decided that more needed to be done to help those children with severe disabilities to prevent further deformities and to maximize independence and quality of life. Working in collaboration with a specialist centre in Monterrey, Mexico, we ran a free Postural Management course in March for 56 locals. This course was aimed to raise awareness for therapists, teachers, caregivers and parents about the importance of Postural Management and the effect that the right wheelchair and postural program can have. This was one of the major areas I had wanted to address since my first trip.
Many of the children are in terrible positions for hours at a time due to their deformities and lack of control over their bodies and therapy input consists of stretching and then putting the child make in the same position. This unfortunately is the only option as very few of the children have specialist wheelchairs. Therefore therapy has little or no impact, other than maintaining the child at their current level of ability. The difference a correct wheelchair can make is instant and incredible and the list of health benefits is endless. Following on from this course, I returned to Mexico in late October with 20 tonnes of specialist wheelchairs and equipment that had been donated from the UK. I also managed to get the shipment cost donated from a company so the whole process cost almost nothing (a lot of grey hairs for me and a Custom ‘tax’/bribe which ended up being £500 – I had to fight for 2 months to get the container released from Mexican Customs).
Since the equipment arrived we have managed to run several Postural Management Clinics, assessing and adapting specialist wheelchairs for 32 children and adults. Check out our before and after photos of Jonny…
We have also donated a large amount of rehabilitation equipment to three specialist children centres, physiotherapy clinics, schools and other local organisations and individuals. We recently donated two trucks full of walking aids, hospital beds, commodes, wheelchairs, hoists and rehabilitation equipment to an elderly care home. I am working on developing a project with them as they have very basic services and lot of people in need. My aim is to set up a physiotherapy service for them and educate the staff about manual handling, how to move an elderly patient and basic rehabilitation.
We also donated sports wheelchairs and a whole gymnasium to the local Adapted Sports Team who are now able to train and compete in local and national competitions. One od the athletes Usiel has an incredible story and as a direct result of donations from Therapies Unite he is now back at work as well as training full time with the Adapted Sports Team. You can watch his story here. We have also started a wheelchair dance class, teaching ballroom and contemporary style dance to children and adults. Click here to watch our performance!
Oscar in Action!
Using the equipment we received I was also able to set up a bike club. We have 12 adapted bikes that we lend out to people every second Sunday, when they shut the main highway to cars. It is great fun to ride the bikes, use the wheelchairs and for many families it is the first time their child has been able to ride a bike and a chance for all the siblings to ride together. It is also a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness of disability within the community and show that anything is possible.
The equipment has made a tremendous difference. It makes me feel immensely proud of Therapies Unite and our small team when I think about the number of different people and institutions that have benefitted as a result from donations. There have been many incredible moments that I will never forget, many wonderful experiences and I am very proud of what we have been able to achieve with such limited resources and volunteers. I hope that this is the first of many shipments; in fact we actually have equipment ready in the UK for the next one. My long term goal is to set up a Postural Management Clinic in Puerto Vallarta that manufactures specialist wheelchairs and this will be run by locals who will be funded by us to train. This clinic can then be easily accessible to the whole community, as well as to families from adjoining states. I have many other plans for the future of Therapies Unite and I am extremely determined to pursue these goals. My main aspiration was to make a long-term difference in peoples’ lives; I now feel confident in saying this is exactly what we are doing and this is just the beginning of a really special journey.
Finally I must say Thank You! None of this could be possible without the support from you! Whether it is money, equipment, time, advice, support, volunteering, fundraising, being forced to attend salsa events or climb mountains you are all part of something very special.
Thank you for helping us to change lives!