WASHINGTON, D.C. - Last July, women's lacrosse senior Molly Kelly was presented with quite an offer: the opportunity to help create, organize and lead a service trip to Puerto Rico as part of Catholic University's Spanish for Health Care Program. The nursing major from East Providence, R.I., considered it the perfect challenge, a chance to put her learning into practice and provide health care to those who really need it.
She immediately recognized the only potential dilemma, the trip would take place during spring break, when the women's lacrosse team had three games scheduled, as they do each year. Kelly was worried of what her team and coaching staff would think about the opportunity.
"Being a senior athlete, lacrosse has now been my life every spring," Kelly said. "It's been a major focus in my overall school career and I was very nervous that I was going to have to pick between the two."
The conversation with head women's lacrosse coach Meghan McDonogh that Kelly anticipated might be difficult, turned out to be just the opposite. McDonogh was thrilled for her.
"Her first reaction was her telling me, 'You absolutely have to go! I've seen how hard you've worked in school and in spanish. This trip has everything that means so much to you.'"
The offer to lead the service trip really came from Kelly's own initiative. Having already completed a minor in spanish and the Spanish for Health Care certificate, she reached out to Professor Jennifer Maxwell, Director of the Spanish for Health Care Certificate Program, to see how she could continue practicing her Spanish in the nursing context.
Kelly was willing to serve as a teaching assistant, help grade papers, or whatever was needed, but Maxwell instead presented the idea of the trip to provide health care in Puerto Rico after how much the U.S. territory was affected by Hurricane Maria in September, 2017.
Because this was a new endeavor for the program, Kelly was asked to help put together the logistics of the trip. Conversations between Maxwell and Professor Patricia McMullen, Dean of the Nursing School, led to the creation of an independent study for Kelly to spend her fall semester to organize the undertaking and construct a research day abstract out of the experience.
Kelly started researching organizations to get in touch with them and express their intentions of providing volunteer health care during the week in March. After weekly meetings with Maxwell, Kelly helped form an itinerary and arrangements to help communities in need in San Juan and Maricao.
"It ended up being a valuable management experience," Kelly said of the process. "It was a challenge since the trip did not exist previously, but it was fun to see how it all came together slowly but surely!"
Professor Maxwell commended Kelly's work ethic and leadership in making this trip possible, and was thankful to have her as a respected mentor to her peers in Puerto Rico.
"Molly has taken on more responsibilities than most undergraduates do during their four years of study at Catholic University," Maxwell said. "She was pivotal in helping me develop, organize, and implement a new Intercultural Clinical Practicum in Puerto Rico."
With the planning done, a group of 16 Catholic University students, including student-athletes Emily Tighe (women's swimming and track & field), Marykate Higley (track & field) and Colin McNulty (football), made the journey to Puerto Rico.
On their first day of service, Catholic students worked with nursing students from the University of the Sacred Heart in San Juan to set up a free health fair, where they helped more than 150 homeless people to check vitals, dental hygiene, skin care and give nutritional advice. Kelly called it a team effort, noting the group's gratitude in having the Sacred Heart students to offer more detailed explanations and advice in Spanish. Catholic also handed out brochures with medical advice that they had assembled before leaving for Puerto Rico.
The group also got to go on 'night rounds' with Iniciativa Comunitaria - an organization created with a mission to develop and implement health services programs focused on HIV/AIDS prevention for at-risk groups in the San Juan area. It was an eye-opening experience for the students who prepared sandwiches and drinks to hand out to the homeless and those afflicted with drug addiction in the night.
Kelly expressed that they all learned how the organization became a steadfast presence of care in the community, establishing education and rehabilitation programs for those without access to health care services.
"To see this kind of outreach was a great perspective because we have drug problems facing us here in the mainland states too," Kelly said. "It was a great example of how to deal with these people affected by drug addiction with genuine care and empathy."
The Spanish for Health Care students also spent time with residents in an elderly home, playing games and singing karaoke to stimulate them and have fun. Kelly helped lead some of the group reflections to decompress after each day of service. She called the week a success, acknowledging there is so much help still needed in the U.S. territory, but they can take pride in the care they provided.
"I really tried to focus on how we can continue showing empathy and connect it to how this can help us be better health care providers back home," Kelly said. "The success is creating change and advocating to continue to push for a more sustainable environment after we leave."
Kelly missed three women's lacrosse games in a stretch that included a win over 15th-ranked Cortland on March 16, but her team was supporting her throughout it. Before the service trip, the group asked for donations of medical supplies to collect and make first aid kits to provide to whoever needed them in Puerto Rico. Just a couple days before she left, Kelly was surprised with a big box of supplies from her teammates.
"To have that unwavering support of your teammates and coaches rooting you on to be a better nurse in your career was really humbling for me," Kelly said.
McDonogh echoed that the decision to let Kelly serve during spring break was a no-brainer.
"When Molly told me about the opportunity I was thrilled for her - such an incredible way of combining her academic pursuits while giving back," McDonogh said. "While we certainly missed her over spring break, all of us are so incredibly proud of what Molly was able to do, though we were happy to have her back at practice that Monday and for the rest of the season!"
After graduation this May, Kelly will start a position in labor and delivery as a registered nurse at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Before then, she'd be happy to share her experience, and she will present her findings at the fourth annual Catholic University Research Day on Tuesday, April 9.