Mis­sion Mo­bil­ity

Si­mone Ca­vanaugh works to im­prove the lives of kids with spe­cial needs in Nicaragua

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - BY STÉPHANIE VERGE PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY ROGER AZIZ

Si­mone Ca­vanaugh works to im­prove the lives of spe­cial­needs chil­dren in Nicaragua. STÉPHANIE VERGE

THE ACHING STARTED when Si­mone Ca­vanaugh was six years old, acute enough that she’d wake in the night cry­ing, clutch­ing her knees and an­kles. Doc­tors dis­missed her con­cerns as grow­ing pains, but within two years, Ca­vanaugh—even­tu­ally di­ag­nosed with ju­ve­nile id­io­pathic arthri­tis—needed a wheel­chair to get around. The con­di­tion af­fected her hips, as well, and would later at­tack her back and ster­num.

“It took al­most seven years for doc­tors to find the right treat­ment,” says Ca­vanaugh, now 24. “We tried gluten-free di­ets, natur­opa­thy, and many med­i­ca­tions with many side ef­fects. Noth­ing ever got me out of the wheel­chair.”

The right treat­ment—in­jec­tions of bi­o­log­ics, which are pro­teins derived from hu­man genes—wasn’t avail­able when Ca­vanaugh was young. To­day, this regime al­lows her to walk on her own and pro­vides ef­fec­tive enough pain man­age­ment that she can study law at McGill Univer­sity, as well as help chil­dren with phys­i­cal chal­lenges in Cen­tral Amer­ica through her Mon­treal-based or­ga­ni­za­tion, Pivot In­ter­na­tional.

Founded three years ago, Pivot was born out of a col­lege trip Ca­vanaugh took to Nicaragua in De­cem­ber 2011. Orig­i­nally in­tend­ing to pick cof­fee for a women’s co­op­er­a­tive with the rest of her class­mates, Ca­vanaugh spent the bulk of her time with Mil­ton,

the four-year-old grand­son of the woman who was hous­ing her.

Mil­ton was largely non-ver­bal and couldn’t walk or sit up on his own. Hav­ing been the co­or­di­na­tor of a sum­mer camp funded by the Arthri­tis So­ci­ety, a staffer at a pro­gram for kids with spe­cial needs, and a vol­un­teer with Hand­i­cap In­ter­na­tional, Ca­vanaugh knew the boy had cere­bral palsy. But, living in a ru­ral area with­out ac­cess to ser­vices, he hadn’t been di­ag­nosed. As Ca­vanaugh played with Mil­ton, she showed his fam­ily how to com­mu­ni­cate with a child with lim­ited ver­bal and mo­tor skills.

“Rather than push a crayon into his hand and guide it, I would hold up each colour and ask if it was the one he wanted,” says Ca­vanaugh. “He was able to say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ He ended up say­ing ‘no’ to ev­ery­thing be­cause he was so ex­cited to ex­press him­self.”

When Ca­vanaugh ar­rived back in Mon­treal, she made a plan to raise enough money to buy Mil­ton a wheel­chair, a walker and other aids. In De­cem­ber 2012, she re­turned to Nicaragua with oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist Marie-Kim McFetridge, cur­rently the paramed­i­cal direc­tor at Pivot. They worked with Mil­ton for two weeks, fo­cus­ing on his mo­tor skills. Four years later, his ver­bal ca­pa­bil­i­ties have greatly im­proved, and he ea­gerly en­gages with oth­ers.

“We have fewer re­sources in Nicaragua than in Que­bec, but we have more free­dom to build per­son­al­ized ser­vices,” says McFetridge. On each an­nual trip, the group—which now in­cludes two more oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pists and two project man­agers—as­sesses an av­er­age of five chil­dren and brings equip­ment for kids eval­u­ated the pre­vi­ous year. Fam­i­lies re­ceive an up­date on their child’s con­di­tion and, when ap­pro­pri­ate, a set of ther­a­peu­tic ac­tiv­i­ties.

Hav­ing peo­ple on the ground in Nicaragua is essential to Pivot’s suc­cess. Since 2012, Made­line Men­doza, whose back­ground is in com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment in Managua, has been in charge of lo­cal lo­gis­tics. “Pivot has had such a pos­i­tive im­pact,” she says. “This last trip, the team brought a Braille ma­chine for a 15-year-old blind girl who just fin­ished el­e­men­tary school and is ea­ger to con­tinue her ed­u­ca­tion. It’s re­ward­ing to wit­ness how mo­ti­vated she is.”

In time, Ca­vanaugh would like Pivot to be Nicaraguan-run and have other bases in Latin Amer­ica. For now, she’ll keep getting Cana­di­ans in­volved. She reg­u­larly vis­its Mon­treal’s Mackay Cen­tre, an el­e­men­tary school for kids with dis­abil­i­ties. She shares sto­ries about Pivot, and the stu­dents throw bake sales and host toy drives. “They’re so pas­sion­ate,” says Ca­vanaugh.

“It’s re­ally cool, hav­ing kids here work­ing for kids there.”

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