Service and Study Abroad: Nina Valaitis '18 Volunteers at Cottolengo
Through her volunteer work at Cottolengo del Padre Alegre, Nina Valaitis witnesses how a community can create an environment of dignity, care, and inclusivity for women who have permanent disabilities. A junior majoring in physical therapy at Saint Louis University, Nina sought out a service opportunity in which she hoped to find community, develop friendships, and respond to the call to become "men and women for others" while studying abroad in Madrid.
At Cottolengo del Padre Alegre, a residence for adults with disabilities who are economically disadvantaged, Nina puts her physical therapy studies into practice by exercising residents under the directions of physical therapists. She also works with one of the occupational therapists to help with memory, language and math activities. "When I first started at Cottolengo, I was worried about the language barrier," Nina says. "However, the nuns, the staff, and the residents have all welcomed me open heartedly and are very patient with my learning process."
Before coming to Madrid, Nina had extensive experience interacting with adults with dementia and permanent disabilities. For the past two years, she served at St. Elizabeth Adult Day Care in St. Louis, providing companionship to the elderly and disabled. She also worked at a special recreation summer camp for the last four years, where she learned to interact with children who cannot communicate verbally. The opportunity to continue her service work while studying abroad has proven to be among her most meaningful experiences in Madrid. She reflects:
"My time at Cottolengo has taught me the incredible importance of communication. I have shared time in the past with people who are nonverbal... However, it was not until I started sharing time with women who are nonverbal at Cottolengo that I have formed a completely new perspective on the value of communication. Not only can these women not tell me how they feel or what they need, but I also cannot fully express my feelings or needs to many of the women at Cottolengo because my knowledge of Spanish is limited. Along with a messy mix of Spanish and English, smiles, thumbs-up, and walking side-by-side have become the main language of connection when I go to Cottolengo. The community of Cottolengo has not only shown me great compassion, but I also see it in how all of the women treat each other like they are one large family."
The spirit of service is part of what makes Saint Louis University and its Madrid Campus distinct. Hundreds of students like Nina volunteer, doing their part to give back to others while studying in Spain. SLU-Madrid students teach English, work with the elderly and serve sandwiches to the homeless, just to name a few of their projects. Find out more about service opportunities for SLU-Madrid students (and faculty and staff) from Program Assistant, Paloma Gómez de Salazar Cordero in Student Life.