Interdisciplinary project’s second phase takes root in Zambian communities

Communities bring new energy, ownership to supportive programming introduced by Kusamala+

Jennifer Biggs, PT, PhD, MPH (third from left) and Paula Rabaey, PhD, OTR/L (third from right) have spent the past eight months completing phase two of Kusamala+, the international, interdisciplinary project funded by the GHR Foundation. Biggs and Rabaey are pictured here with Zambian team members, along with Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB) CEO and president Bruce Wilkinson and in-country CMMB director Batuke Walusiku-Mwewa.

Photo provided.

St. Kate’s faculty-led project Kusamala+

For Zambian families who have a child with a disability, educational and supportive programming can make a world of difference, as St. Kate’s faculty-led project Kusamala+ has demonstrated.

Children with disabilities frequently experience isolation and lack of resources in low-income countries. Professors Mary Hearst, Paula Rabaey, and other St. Kate's faculty have been working alongside their team to change this in Zambian communities since launching Kusamala+, the international, interdisciplinary GHR Foundation-funded project, in 2017. Read more about phase one of Kusamala+.

The second, current phase of Kusamala+ further develops “training the trainers,” curriculum refinement, and building sustainability. Since beginning this phase in July 2019, the Kusamala+ team has seen the project take on a life of its own in the communities involved.

“The families who have been part of Kusamala+ are reaching out to other families they know,” says Rabaey, PhD, OTR/L, occupational therapy assistant professor. “One mother and her neighbor who also had a child with disability went door-to-door in their area gathering all the parents together, and formed their own support group.”

“Families have reported profound change,” agrees Hearst, MPH, PhD, Director of Master of Public Health in Global Health. “The more that the community health workers are present in the community, the more families see the community groups and support growing. More families are coming out of their homes with their child and participating in services, and then there’s increased awareness on the community level because families are engaged and visible.”

Stories like these are encouraging to the Kusamala+ team because ultimately, one of the project’s major goals is ownership by the communities. One way Kusamala+ works toward community ownership is, in conjunction with the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB), training experts who work in local health systems. The experts, in turn, train volunteers from the communities in Kanyama and Misisi.

Kusamala+ also works closely with community trainers to ensure that the programming and materials will be sustainable when St. Kate’s funded development ends next year. University faculty and students are now exploring ways to continue their involvement, including future partnerships with CMMB and the Zambian communities on an as-needed basis.

The community change around the topic of disability spurs movement in the bigger scope as well. Government officials from the Zambian Ministries who are part of the Kusamala+ stakeholder group hope to adopt the training and educational materials as part of the national curriculum around disability. Thus far, Kusamala+ has even added a third community,  Chawama, to the program.


A transformative interdisciplinary experience

St. Kate’s members on the project come from a variety of University programs, with a faculty team representing public health, occupational therapy, physical therapy, social work, and physician assistant studies. In addition to the important work being done through the project, Kusamala+ offers a unique opportunity for both faculty and students to collaborate in a real-world interdisciplinary setting.

“Our fields all use different terms, but we’re talking about the same thing,” says Rabaey. “This is a chance for students to come out of their silos. They get to learn how to articulate what occupational therapy does, and then see what public health does, seeing how we overlap and how we’re different.”

In January, Bridget Ireland, MAOT ’20 accompanied Hearst to Zambia, where as part of her master’s project she assisted in manual development, material development for clinics and health workers, and various information-gathering throughout the project. 

“My involvement in Kusamala+ has enriched my classroom learning while completely shattering my expectations of what was possible to experience as a student,” Ireland says. Through her involvement, she’s been able to apply her occupational therapy classroom learning to the real world. “It’s helped me to comprehend the challenges and phenomenal successes that come with working with individuals of different cultural and professional backgrounds to meet the needs of community members… This experience has been incredibly formative.”


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