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The Catalyst

Program for Hispanics links children to health care

Staff Report

The MUSC Alliance for Hispanic Health celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 through Oct. 15) with a four-week speaker series on topics related to health care needs of the Hispanic community.

One presentation featured this year was “Alegría: A Dance-Based Health Education Program” for Spanish-speaking children with special needs and their families which served more than 100 participants this summer.

Occupational therapy student Pamela Vesely, right, helps out with the Alegria summer program. It was free to Tri-county Spanish-speaking children with special needs and their families. The dance-based, community health education program is partly sponsored by MUSC’s Alliance for Hispanic Health. Photo provided

MUSC employee and Alegría volunteer Martha Gomez said, “The opportunity to work with these children and these families during the past four weeks has filled my heart with joy and hope for them and their siblings. It is an honor to be part of this experience."

According to the Pew Research Center, the 2000 U.S. Census and the 2011 American Community Survey,  South Carolina had the second fastest growing Hispanic population among the 50 states from 2000 –2011.

In this group, 44 percent were born in foreign countries, according to the Pew report. Within this population is a subgroup of families of children born (many as U.S. citizens) with disabilities and special needs including autism, cerebral palsy, genetic disorders, vision and hearing impairments and a variety of other physical, cognitive, and developmental challenges. Access to traditional resources has been limited due to language, social and economic barriers, transportation difficulties and limited understanding of the health care system. Few resources exist in the Lowcountry to accommodate the unique needs of these families.

Alegría was created to promote “joyfulness” for Spanish-speaking children with special needs and their families through a dance-based health education program. This program took place for four weeks in the summer of 2013 through an interprofessional collaboration of representatives from multiple non-profit organizations and local businesses.

Participants enjoyed nightly food, demonstrations, participation in group-led dance and movement activities, piñatas, and other special events. Select non-profit organizations were featured each night, including the Seacoast Church Dream Center, ABRAZOS program, PASOS program, and Family Connections Spanish Outreach program.  Educational materials were distributed in Spanish each night including American Heart Association brochures on physical activity and cooking healthy food, resources on recommendations for video games and television and a list of additional local resources.  Participating parents frequently reported that the most beneficial aspect of the program was increased knowledge of strategies to interact with and help their children with special needs.

MUSC Occupational Therapy student Pamela Vesely volunteered for the program each night and described it:  “Alegría is a great opportunity to get involved with the community and has taught me how little it can take to bring a smile to someone’s face. Everyone deserves the opportunity to celebrate the joys of life, and Alegría makes that happen!"

Coordinators of Alegría included MUSC alumna and adjunct instructor Cristina Reyes Smith, OTD, in the College of Health Professions’ Division of Occupational Therapy, Spanish interpreter Michelle Robinson from Hanahan Elementary School, speech therapist Monica Mason, community health worker and bilingual Patient Services representative Martha Gomez at MUSC Children’s Care in North Charleston, and MUSC Alliance for Hispanic Health advisor Laurie Charles, Ph.D.

Initial funding was provided through the MUSC Alliance for Hispanic Health to make the Alegría program possible. In addition, more than $1,500 in in-kind donations were provided to support the program including meals from local Latino restaurants, dance and gymnastics demonstrations, face painting and animal balloons, therapy dogs, piñatas, and other special events.

The future of Alegria holds many possibilities including potential for becoming a non-profit organization; additional community events and programs such as dances, Respite Nights, or interpreter-facilitated access to traditional events for children with special needs; potential for future MUSC student learning opportunities; and pursuit of community grants to expand the program.

Individuals interested in becoming involved can visit or contact Reyes Smith at or 792-5312.

November 1, 2013

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