Q & A: Stefanie Leafblad '09

11-hour workdays, but ‘cannot imagine leaving this place’

July  20, 2010

The Augie connection continues: Bridget McLaughlin ’10 is now working as a speech therapist at the same orphanage, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos, on its campus in Guatemala until July 2011.

Having earned her bachelor’s in communication sciences and disorders, Stefanie Leafblad ’09 wanted to explore her career choice and a different culture before enrolling in graduate school. Dr. Kathy Jakielski and Barbara Roseman encouraged her to take advantage of an Augustana connection at Rancho Santa Fe, the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos orphanage in Honduras. Tania Egan ’99 Giorgis established the orphanage’s speech intervention program several years ago; in fact, Jakielski herself traveled to Rancho Santa Fe when Giorgis was setting up the program. Following in the footsteps of Giorgis and later Catherine Huck ’00 Trapskin, Leafblad volunteered as a speech therapist at the orphanage during the past year.

Rancho Santa Fe is home to almost 500 boys and girls, young adults and a dozen grandparents. Three schools with a Montessori approach — an elementary school, middle school and trade school — are on the property.

“The kids then leave the ‘Ranch’ and attend high school in the capital city or other cities after they complete a year of service,” Leafblad says. “If they have good grades, they return to the ‘Ranch’ where they complete two more years of service and then can attend college for free for whatever they desire. There are doctors, lawyers, architects, psychologists, teachers and linguists, you name it and they are in school for it, which is so cool to me!”

Including Leafblad, 15 volunteers from the United States, Germany, Spain, Holland and Austria work at the orphanage. In July, she left her new friends to visit her family for a couple weeks before moving to San Antonio, Texas, to begin her master’s program in speech-language pathology with an emphasis in bilingual therapy at Our Lady of the Lake University. Her goal is to continue working with Latino populations.

Augustana College Magazine caught up with Leafblad for a Q&A via email during her last few weeks in Honduras.

Q: What is a typical day for you?

A: A typical workday is 11 hours.... I work at the school from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. as the speech pathologist, and then every night from 6-8 p.m. and every weekend I work at the boys’ house with the third oldest age group, 10 to 13. There are 25 of them, and I feel like they are all my own kids by this point. It’s amazing the relationships I've developed with every one of them, and for that reason I cannot imagine leaving this place or these boys!

Q: What are some of the speech therapy services you provide?

A: The majority of the children I work with are between the ages of 5 and 10 and have speech disorders. ‘Rolling’ the /r/ is a challenging task for many, and there are several with stutters. I also work with one hearing-impaired boy and several young adults with disorders such as Down Syndrome, mental disability and some ‘unknown’ disorders. Working here has definitely forced me to work with what I have, and I thank my liberal arts education for being able to tackle problems with a creative approach.

Q: Can you describe one of your most memorable experiences?

A: Working within my hogar or home of boys has been the most heartwarming experience here for me. I have a ton of memories, but there is one that sticks out that reminds me why I am here and what I am doing for these children.

I would say nine out of 10 kids that end up here do so in some effect from HIV/AIDs. For example, the mom had AIDs and died, and the dad couldn’t care for the family alone, or a mom dies and gives the kids to Grandma who then can’t care for them, or a mom has HIV so the kids go to live with the aunt but the uncle is abusive so they come here…. There are a lot of children here who are HIV-positive. We have great sponsors in Germany that allow the kids to receive every medication possible, and they have a great prognosis as long as they keep taking their medication regularly.

I have four HIV-positive boys in my hogar, and they run around/get dirty/play-fight/laugh just like everyone else. The kids are really integrated, and there is no sense of segregation because of this. However, one afternoon the boys were washing their clothes, and it turned into a slip-and-slide event on the cement with all the soap suds, and the kids were screaming with laughter and excitement as they took turns running and sliding into their pile of dirty clothes. Unfortunately one of the HIV boys slid into a jagged pipe, and his leg was cut open. Kids scattered and he was left there with his own tears, sobbing in pain and, probably more so, embarrassment.

I started to get materials to help him clean up and another boy looked at me and said, “Stefanie, you know you can’t touch him.” It was so sad; the other child didn’t say this maliciously, only with ignorance. As I opened the medicine cabinet, another sad truth hit me. In this mixed-up Third World country but top-notch orphanage, they don’t have stocked medicine cabinets … and there were no gloves for me to put on. The same child then told me they had plastic bags, and I could put my hands in those. I found the hurt little boy in the showers huddled in a corner. He wouldn’t even let me touch him for the first five minutes, but by this point I was well aware that at times like this he is left to care for himself. It was a sad but honest truth.

Yes, I am here working in this orphanage to share my college education for free — that is the upfront reason why I was hired, but from my experiences I feel like I am here first and foremost to love. Showing these kids what healthy love is like is a contagious gift. My most memorable experiences have been showing love when others don’t know how. They may come here from broken pasts, but kids are resilient and open to learn.

Q: Has the experience been what you expected? Would you recommend it to other Augustana CSD grads?

A: This has been more than I expected! It’s a great sort of internship, and it has shown me that yes, working as a speech-language pathologist is something I want to do for the rest of my life. It’s also shown me how valuable my graduate education will be, as working here has made me realize how much more I need to learn.

It’s also a fully integrated multi-cultural experience. I live with and in this wonderful Latino culture but also work and live among five European cultures. I have friends around the globe now, and they’ve all taught me a lesson or two that I will bring back to the States. For Augie grads looking to share what they’ve learned, but at the same time learn more about a language, a culture and people, this is the place. It’s so rewarding.

Q: On your first day of classes in Rock Island, could you have pictured yourself where you are now?

A: I’d have to say yes and no. I’m from Gurnee, Ill., and have grown up with a fascination and appreciation of Latino culture. I always knew I wanted to travel and experience another culture, but if it weren’t for Augustana and professors such as Dr. J, I don’t think I would have had enough confidence to come to a place such as Honduras on my own.

Q: What will be the hardest/easiest thing to get used to once you're back in the States?

A: The hardest thing to remember might be to flush toilet paper and that hitch hiking is illegal. The easiest thing to get used to will be grocery shopping with options. It’s chicken/rice/beans/eggs here, every day, every meal.

Q: Do you think you might return to Rancho Santa Fe someday?

A: Yes! I really want to return for Christmas. It’s such a special time here. I want to come back as much as I can while my group of boys is still around the Ranch. In four years most of them will be off at high school and have better things to do than talk and play with me.

Contact Augustana Magazine editor Debbie Blaylock by email; by phone at (309) 794-8979; or by mail at Augustana College, 639 38th St., Rock Island, Ill., 61201.