UPenn Volunteer Program

UPenn Student Creates a Volunteer Program at HMS School

A few years ago, Nikhil Rajapuram, a bioengineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, came to HMS for what was supposed to be a one-time visit. Instead it turned into not only two years of volunteering his own time, but also creating a club for other students at Penn to do the same. Nikhil graduated last spring and is now using his experience at HMS to help even more children on the other side of the world. I recently had the chance to ask Nikhil about his time here at HMS, what he’s doing now and where he’s going next.

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Nikhil (back row, center) with other volunteers from Penn Cares for Kids

Q: First, can you tell us about how you found your way to HMS a couple of years ago?

A: I had heard of a program at Penn called Global Biomedical Service Program which is a two-week trip to develop orthotics for children with CP and related disorders in underserved areas of China. In preparation, our professor Dr. Bogen suggested we take a trip to HMS, a school I had never heard of, to get a sense of what cerebral palsy and the people who interacted with it were all about. To be honest, I was quite nervous as I had never interacted with people with disabilities extensively, but upon entering HMS was overwhelmed with the joy and positivity emanating for the students, teachers, therapists, nurses, and administrators. I’ll never forget the poster of Josh in a stander running for Vice President with the caption “I’ll stand up for you!”. From that day, I knew I wanted to be a part of HMS.

Q: What motivated you to create an entire club based on just bringing volunteers to HMS?

A: I began volunteering regularly in the PT department of HMS at the beginning of my junior year of college, working with Mary and Deb to learn, play, and assist wherever I could with the students’ treatment. I loved the experience and of course started mentioning it to my friends. Many of them expressed to me their frustration at long waiting periods to get into volunteer opportunities at other clubs or hospitals, and lack of fulfillment they felt during many of those experiences, particularly because there was little human interaction. Simultaneously, I became aware of all the wonderful departments at HMS and the need for volunteers, particularly after school where I saw Bill managing 10-15 students of different ages, attitudes, and needs. I thought to myself, there are students looking for fulfilling service experiences which are low-commitment, engaging, and easy to access, and there is a school with a wonderful community that could use volunteers and only a 20 minute walk away from campus. From there, the idea was simple: Bring together the few Penn volunteers at HMS and start a club that would expose Penn students to the variety of service opportunities, the challenges faced by those with developmental disorders, and the joy and fulfillment of the HMS community.

Q: What was one of your most positive experiences while spending time at HMS?

A: Just a couple months into volunteering at HMS, I remember coming in one day and in rolled Eric. Mary explained to me that he needed gait therapy to strengthen his legs, so we fitted him into a sling and placed him over the treadmill. I knelt down alongside Mary and we each took hold of one of Eric’s legs, picking it up and placing it forward to replicate a normal gait, all the while encouraging Eric and studying his movement. After 5 minutes, I was absolutely exhausted. Not only did I have an appreciation for the difficult work of HMS therapists, I was faced with how remarkable of a privilege it is to be able to walk independently. Out of curiosity, I asked Mary how old Eric was (as he is non-verbal) and she responded he was nineteen. I was taken aback, as I realized he was nearly my age, and recognized there is very little difference between us – a genetic mishap or an unfortunate complication during birth. And after arduously moving his legs for just a few minutes, I saw that abilities such as walking and speaking are ones many of us take for granted. We retested Eric’s gait and already I could see him picking up his left leg more. An unexpected sense of success rushed over me. It wasn’t about dramatic changes, but rather the collection of improvements, no matter how small, of every student. Waving goodbye to Eric, I saw that I need him as much as he needs me. I may have given him help stretching, encouraging words, or a comforting smile, but what he gave me was far more valuable – the ability to take a step off the treadmill of day-to-day life and reflect upon my motivations. Eric and all the HMS students I’ve had the privilege to work with have inspired me to live as they do – bettering myself one step at a time, with raucous laughter and a goofy smile.

Q: Tell us how your experience at HMS changed or effected your future path in anyway

A: My time at HMS made me a more selfless and engaged individual. Not only did I learn about the great deal of challenges faced by people with disabilities, I saw the direct impact I could have on improving the lives of others through the inspiration of the HMS community. All the faculty and staff are so invested in the betterment of the quality of life for their students that it is impossible not to want to do the same. Penn Cares for Kids showed me the need for those in a position of resource and privilege such as myself to give a voice to those without. Because of this, I applied and won a Fulbright scholarship to examine the issues facing children with developmental disorders in India. I have been utilizing the skills I gained at HMS during this year, particularly how to work with children with CP and their families and the range of assistive technology resources available.

Q: Can you tell us what you’re doing now?

A: I am currently in Mumbai completing my Fulbright scholarship examining issues facing children with CP and related developmental disorders in India. I have been working directly with NGOs, interacting one-on-one with children and their families in schools and urban slums, as well as educational institutions, government ministries, and social enterprises, looking to improve the research, development, and distribution of assistive technologies.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: After my fellowship concludes in May, I will be returning to the US to begin medical school at University of California San Francisco. However, I look to continue my work with children with disabilities, particularly in the field of medical device and assistive technology innovation, with an emphasis on low-income and rural communities. Eventually, I plan to specialize in Pediatrics.

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When Nikhil graduated he left Penn Cares for Kids in very capable hands. The group currently volunteers at HMS twice a week in the evenings.  If you are a Penn student who is interested in getting involved, please contact Nicole Paul at penncaresforkids@gmail.com.

For more information on Penn Cares for Kids, please visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/PennCaresforKids