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"My wish is that the children and their families who participated in the activities continue to have opportunities to socialize, and that the UVM medical student volunteers will continue to work with special needs children," Velazco says.

Throughout high school and college, Cristine Velazco volunteered at Children’s Specialized Hospital (CSH)—a hospital in Mountainside, New Jersey that specializes in the treatment and rehabilitation of children with severe physical disabilities and illnesses (and that employs music therapy, art, and games in addition to purely clinical tactics).

As a Schweitzer Fellow and a student at the University of Vermont (UVM) College of Medicine, Velazco dedicated herself to bringing the same kind of specialized support and structured recreation to Vermont children with special needs.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

During my first year at UVM, I was motivated to develop my Schweitzer project after listening to two mothers with sons with special needs speak about their children’s experiences in the Burlington area—where there existed an unmet need for recreational programs for children like their sons.

In a lecture at UVM, a mother whose son passed away from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy spoke about his experiences, and how his happiest times were with other children like himself at Shriner’s Children’s Hospital in Boston. Later that year in a small group session, we had parents from Vermont Family Network speak to us. The mother who came to my group had a son with special health needs; she discussed his experiences when mainstreamed in school and her desire for more programs outside of school developed specifically for children with special needs. She mentioned that she alone had to seek extracurricular activities for her son and wished to find a way to have him interact with peers and have music incorporated into these activities.

These two events reminded me of my experiences with CSH, where special needs children have an outlet to socialize and interact with their peers, siblings, and families during special events sponsored by corporations in the area. As a result, I developed a program where children could do art activities, as well as enjoy gym time with obstacle courses. Both activities helped them with their motor coordination skills, while at the same time they enjoyed interacting with peers and student volunteers from multiple disciplines at the university.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

My wish is that the children and their families who participated in the activities continue to have opportunities to socialize, and that the UVM medical student volunteers will continue to work with special needs children. Also, I hope that our Saturday recreational sessions created lasting memories for the children, their parents and the volunteers.  I know they did for me!

In addition, as a result of my project, I was approached by a first-year medical student to help begin an Autism Student Interest Group with the objective of exposing medical school students to the special needs of this group. We held a “Meet the Autism Team” panel where we introduced medical students and physical therapy students to health care workers other than physicians who are involved in the care of children with autism. The group now includes some psychology students as well. I would love to see this group expand to include other types of special needs children.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

In pediatrics, I believe that the most pressing issue today in the United States is promoting preventive medicine to caregivers and physicians, especially in the areas of childhood obesity and vaccinations. The most pressing issue will be to address the need for public education on preventive medicine and to encourage physicians to discuss these issues with their patients’ caregivers.

The United States, as well as many other developed countries, is confronting an obesity epidemic that is growing among school-aged children who face the possible sequelae of Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension and more at an early age. Like those done against smoking, public health campaigns concerning the importance of a healthy diet and exercise for children need to become a priority.

Likewise, vaccinating children against many infectious diseases is on the decline in the U.S. due to myths based on poor clinical research about their safety. Children are dying or experiencing unnecessary illnesses because of lack of available immunizations.  Caregiver education is a priority here, and we also need to continue to work on getting vaccines made available abroad in under-developed countries.

Good preventive medicine can also contribute positively to the reduction in national health care costs by eradicating preventable, infectious disease epidemics and eliminating the need for some chronic care medications and complications in the young and old.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

The willingness of other Fellows to support and help one another—not only with the group public outreach project, but also in troubleshooting other Fellows’ individual projects—has been amazing. When I hit a roadblock related to my project, I was impressed by how everyone began brainstorming ways to solve these issues. The ultimate resolutions were positive, and I was able to implement my project.  The support of the Fellows and my UVM and Schweitzer advisors has been fantastic.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?

Being a Schweitzer Fellow means working and building lifetime friendships and contacts with other students who share a similar passion for volunteerism despite very busy schedules. While our projects may differ, sometimes dramatically, we all have the same commitment to improve our communities.

For me, being a Fellow for Life translates into a lifelong commitment to volunteering some of my time to provide health care to one or more underserved groups and providing mentoring to future Fellows. As I age and my perspectives on health care and unmet community needs evolve, I look forward to networking with and possibly volunteering with Fellows from around the world.

Velazco is a Schweitzer Fellow for Life in Vermont. Click here to read more about the New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Velazco it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Velazco’s efforts to expand the recreational activities available to Vermont children with special needs, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.