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Wednesday, April 01

Brookdale Newsroom

Brookdale Alumna Brings Health Training to Mexico

It’s been a productive few decades for Kathleen Smith-Wenning. Since graduating from Brookdale’s Respiratory Therapy program in 1985, Smith-Wenning has worked as a learning assistant, professor, department director and, most recently, as a humanitarian and public health advocate in Oaxaca City, Mexico.

Since the year 2006, she has been volunteering with Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots, an organization committed to improving the lives of the poor children in the city. Smith-Wenning came across Oaxaca Grassroots while looking for a service project that would engage her Monmouth University anthropology students in a community of native people.

After working with the children for only a short time, she said she immediately fell in love with their warmth and culture.

“Most of the children we serve work late into the night selling cigarettes and candy,” she said, following her latest trip to Oaxaca on Jan. 20 “They are profoundly poor by our standards. They live in homes with cement floors, corrugated walls and roofs, one light bulb and no running water.

“Their beds are floor mats,” she added. “But they have a different type of wealth: a strong, family-centered community.”

Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots volunteers work with marginalized youth in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots.

Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots volunteers work with marginalized youth in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots.

Smith-Wenning, now the director of clinical education for the Respiratory Care Program at Rutgers School of Health Related Professions, also serves on Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots’ board of directors.

In Oaxaca she teaches a course titled “English for Your Health,” which covers topics such as bodily functions, how to read medicine labels, and when to call a doctor.

She also discusses how to describe and take care of diseases such as cold, flu, bronchitis, hypertension, asthma and diabetes.

Smith-Wenning said that she chose to take a more active role in public health issues after reading stories about unaccompanied minors crossing from Central America into the US last summer. She knew she had to act quickly, she said.

“I was drawn to help these people because, as austere as the conditions in Oaxaca are, those children have an address,” she said. “The refugee children had no idea where they were and were alone.”

She contacted La Posada, a refugee shelter near the border of San Benito, Texas, and spent the following week teaching people “hands-only” CPR as part of that shelter’s required life skills courses.

While not completely fluent in Spanish, Smith-Wenning said she was able to communicate effectively with her students by acting things out and using translation dictionaries.

“Non-English speakers may not have a word for a common disease, such as asthma or diabetes,” she said. “And some of my students have relied upon herbal remedies and do not understand western medicine.”

Despite using her expertise and sense of compassion to effect change on more global scale, Smith-Wenning said she still remembers her Brookdale roots.

“I teach community college students now, and I always tell them that my degree in respiratory therapy is responsible for everything I am, everything I have achieved and is the basis for my current career,” she said. “This degree has made me stand out teaching both anthropology and respiratory therapy. This education walks beside me every day.”

For more information on Brookdale’s Respiratory Therapy program, click here.

For more information on Respiratory Therapy at Rutgers, click here.

PHOTO BY: RUTGERS UNIVERSITY.

ARTICLE BY: Rutgers University and Matt Gutch, college relations intern.