On a Mission: Eastern Health Employees Join Team Broken Earth to Bring Autism Education to Nicaragua


It was a whirlwind trip that has left an everlasting, meaningful impact on two Eastern Health employees that they won’t soon forget.

Jan Young Guerra, Manager of Direct Home and Autism Services, and Susanne O’Neill, Senior Child Management Specialist, knew about and respected Team Broken Earth’s medical relief trips around the world – but they never imagined that their specific skills and training in autism support would be in demand on these humanitarian missions.

That is until one day in January when Jan was contacted with a special request from Maria Enriquez of Team Broken Earth. Maria explained to Jan an encounter she had when she and her husband, Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre Emergency Department Physician, Dr. Carlos Enriquez, last travelled to their home country of Nicaragua with Team Broken Earth. On that trip, they were approached by a mother of a child with autism who noted a gap in service in that area. Maria asked if Jan would be interested in taking her knowledge, skills and experience on an international adventure and come along during an upcoming eye clinic mission planned for Nicaragua, a partnership between Team Broken Earth and the Lions Club.

Once Jan heard this story, she immediately agreed.

(L-R) Maria Enriquez, Jan Young Guerra, Susanne O’Neill

When Maria explained that they were going in February, “I said ‘that’s a bit fast’” recalls Jan, but before long her concerns around being able to pull everything together in time quickly subsided. The next step was recruiting Susanne to partner with her on this first of its kind autism mission.

Jan has been working with individuals with disabilities and their families for 29 years and Susanne for 17 years. They have committed themselves to improving the lives of children with autism in Newfoundland and Labrador. As employees of Eastern Health’s Autism Program, they are well-versed with the latest scientific, evidence-based treatment for children with autism.

Now here was an opportunity to share their expertise in a meaningful way with those less fortunate. It was an easy decision for them both.

With that, and with just four weeks to go, it was full steam ahead planning!

“Susanne and I were able to take part in this mission because of the financial and emotional support of our families, friends and colleagues,” acknowledges Jan. “They have been so supportive.” Making this mission happen included quick fundraising efforts, support to take leave from their positions and guidance from other Team Broken Earth volunteers.

It was important to make the most of their limited time on the ground in Nicaragua as they would only be there for six working days. So, Jan and Susanne developed a full day in-service presentation as well as plans to meet individually with children and their parents for two-hour one-on-one sessions. They sent ahead pre-questionnaires which would help them to get to know the children before they arrived and tailored their presentation to the topics parents sent forward. They developed kits of materials, resources and information unique to each child. In fact, they even personalized the play-based items in the kits based on the child’s preferences – so kids who like trains got toy trains, those who liked Legos got Legos, and so on.

Upon their arrival in Nicaragua, they headed to Chinandega and Fundación Chinandega which would be their home-base during the trip.

They began with a full day in-service attended by 138 people, including parents, doctors, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, physiotherapists, teachers and other services providers from the area.

Language certainly could have been a barrier to making this a successful mission. Thankfully, however, Maria assisted with translating the presentation to Spanish so that the information could be easily shared with those in attendance. Jan and Susanne are tremendously appreciative of Maria’s support to ensure all materials were translated and that interpreters were in place for the presentation and one-on-one meetings. Local volunteer interpreters played a vital role in making sure communication was possible between the health professionals and the families in attendance. According to Jan, the interpreters will be their friends for life as they went above and beyond to make the experience meaningful and successful.

Along with providing information and answering questions, Jan shares that the in-service “also provided a valuable opportunity for parents to connect with one another, as well as service providers.” Community connections enable parents to develop support mechanisms as well as a sustainable plan for treatment of their child with autism and developmental disabilities.

Jan and Susanne also held one-on-one sessions with 21 children and their families. Through the sessions, Jan and Susanne not only provided take-away kits of tangible materials and information, but also provided parents with attainable and sustainable recommendations for them to implement at home with their child and without other supports. Along with demonstrating the actions they were recommending, they wrote them out, had them translated and provided them to the parents.

Jan and Susanne offered one-on-one sessions with children and their families to make recommendations and teach them new techniques

“It was important for parents to do these techniques with their own child to address communication and behaviour issues,” says Susanne. “We would teach parents a technique where they could see immediate results. It was very powerful for them to see that.”

Even though Nicaragua is a world away in a much different climate and culture than Newfoundland and Labrador, Jan says, “We found that parents of children with autism worry about the same universal things…. Will my child speak? Will they be able to live independently?”

Despite the longs days (they clocked 12 hours a day – from 8:30 a.m. in the morning to 8:30 p.m. in the night), “The experience has exceeded any hopes and expectations I had,” says Jan.

Jan and Susanne with one the Nicaraguan families that participated in their sessions (Patricia Salinas, Adolfo Romero and their three year old son Franklin Thomas Romero Salinas)

She also expects it will impact her work at home and with Eastern Health. “It has taught me to slow down a bit and be in the moment. It continues to fuel my passion for sharing knowledge and techniques on how to assist children, especially those with autism, to reach their fullest learning and development.”

Adds Susanne, “To be able to help and the gratitude that came from these people was so inspiring. One person can make a difference and that’s a lesson I’ll keep with me.”

Although this was the first time autism training has been offered through Team Broken Earth, Jan and Susanne suspect it won’t be the last – especially if they have any say about it. Both are raring to go again! As Jan says, “where to next?” 

This story was written by Tracey Boland, media relations manager at Eastern Health, with support from Jan Young Guerra, Manager of Direct Home and Autism Services, and Susanne O’Neill, Senior Child Management Specialist with Eastern Health.

3 responses to “On a Mission: Eastern Health Employees Join Team Broken Earth to Bring Autism Education to Nicaragua

  1. Just awesome!!! Susanne changed our lives and we will be forever grateful for her. So happy to see she was given the opportunity to help others, She is the best!!!! Way to go!!!

  2. It was indeed a fantastic mission!
    You guys made a difference to the life of those people. They are so grateful and eager for your return.
    Thanks a million to Broken Earth, Jan, Suzanne, their families, friends and coworkers for making this possible!
    For ever grateful ,
    María

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