Northern Illinois grad student helps wheelchair-bound find just the right fit

Elizabeth Davies

When Theresa Yanik learned she had to do a major project to get her graduate degree in physical therapy, this Rockford native decided to think big: She and two friends headed to Guatemala.

“We wanted to do something we were passionate about,” said Yanik, 23. “For the three of us, it’s about our faith: Wanting to help people and bring glory to God through serving people.”

So for a week last summer, Yanik and two of her peers from Northern Illinois University traveled to Guatemala to fit wheelchairs for children and adults. In all, they delivered and properly sized about 150 wheelchairs to people in the Central American country.

“Especially in Guatemala, wheelchairs aren’t fitted, and people end up getting

bedsores,” said Yanik, who went on the trip with Hope Haven International, an Iowa-based missions group. “There are other organizations who bring chairs, but they don’t fit them so sometimes they do more harm than good.”

The students did research while in Guatemala, asking wheelchair users about their ability to get around and how long they’ve been waiting for a wheelchair. What they found was Guatemalan streets there are not made for wheelchair use, and helpful additions such as grab-bars in showers and automatic doors are not available.

“People have much more difficulty with basic tasks in Guatemala than in the United States,” Yanik said.

While on the trip, Yanik also spent time with children who had disabilities and lived at an orphanage. She was horrified to see how many spend nearly all day in their cribs — some with lids on top to prevent the children from crawling out.

“It was so shocking when we got there,” she said. “They were forced to stay in their cribs for the majority of the day. It was so, so sad. There’s a lot more potential for them. We could see the harm being done by them staying in the cribs.”

One child, an 8-year-old with autism, had to wear a helmet because he would bang his head on the crib bars. But when he was let out to play with his American visitors, “he was just a normal little boy,” Yanik said. “He enjoyed just running around and getting into things.”

At present, Yanik and her friends are reworking their research paper — yes, she got an A — so it can be published in Physical Therapy Magazine. Then, after she graduates in May, Yanik hopes to use the experience to help people worldwide on future trips like the one to Guatemala.

“It’s definitely spurred an interest to do more missions work, and to use our physical therapy skills to volunteer all over the world,” she said. “This is just one country, but there’s need all over the world. A lot of hospitals or people here in the States might throw their chair away when they get a new one, but it could probably still be used.”

Yanik pursued this profession after undergoing several months’ worth of physical therapy on her knee. She saw firsthand how important the work was, and how much of a difference it made in someone’s life.

“The majority of people really want to work hard and get better. It’s really cool to see,” she said. “It’s a rewarding profession, and I’m very excited to do it.”

Rockford Register Star


Hometown: Rockford

Age: 23

Family: Parents, Tom and Gail; brothers, John, 18, and Jim, 16; sisters, Lisa, 22, and Kayla, 11.

Hobbies: Spending time with her fiancé, planning their wedding, hanging out with family, running, swing dancing and cooking