By Jacky Scott
The word “warmakuna” means “children” in Quechua, the second most commonly spoken language in Peru, after Spanish. To a UF doctoral student and Fulbright scholar, warmakuna hold a special place in her heart.
“Children are very special to me and are full of potential,” said Fiorella Guerrero, a student in the college’s rehabilitation science Ph.D. doctoral program.
In conjunction with her doctoral research project on evaluating quality of life among Peruvian families with children who have disabilities, Guerrero is able to directly support Peruvian children with intellectual and developmental disabilities through her efforts as a founder and board member of Warmakuna Hope, a nonprofit based in Lima. She and other volunteers provide free physical, speech and occupational therapy services and workshops for children and their families.
Like many nonprofits, Warmakuna Hope started from humble beginnings. In 2017, after returning from a fellowship at the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Institute and the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, Guerrero learned that due to lack of funding, the Peruvian nonprofit that she had previously worked at had closed.
Feeling compelled to help the children and their families, Guerrero and former colleagues called the volunteers and families affected by the closure. They collectively decided to continue their efforts despite the financial challenges and founded Warmakuna Hope.
“The beginning of Warmakuna Hope was the expression of love and commitment to a vulnerable population,” Guerrero said. “Even a pandemic cannot shut down our operations.”
The volunteer-led nonprofit aspires to improve the quality of life of children who have Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism spectrum disorder, all while recently having to adapt to COVID-19 protocols. Providing rehabilitation services during a pandemic has been no small feat, especially when the team was forced to update their sustainability model.
Before the pandemic, the nonprofit offered two tiers of rehab services: a $5 option and a free option. Once the pandemic hit, the team decided to provide all of their rehab services free to the families. The volunteers also worked to help families transition to a virtual environment and collected donations to provide 20 tablets to the families, allowing their children to access both their school classes and therapy sessions during COVID-19.
“I believe the investment we put into working with children in their first years is crucial,” Guerrero said. “The way we treat our children determines the destiny of a nation. Through our work, children with disabilities who were excluded from schools for years are now attending one for the first time.”
A student in the disability, occupation, and participation science track in the Ph.D. program under the mentorship of Jessica Kramer, Ph.D., OTR/L, an associate professor in the department of occupational therapy, Guerrero recognizes the importance of her studies and how they can translate to her work serving children and their families.
As a board member of Warmakuna Hope, she leads the communications team and manages the operating model to develop processes. Building on past professional experience and developing skills she has learned throughout her doctoral studies, Guerrero also writes and coordinates projects to send to funding agencies.
“Bringing happiness to children and their families is priceless,” Guerrero said. “Hearing about their dreams for the future and that they don’t feel alone anymore is extremely rewarding. Seeing how committed the volunteers, children and their families are is not only motivating my work in Lima, but also to continue my Ph.D. studies here.”
To learn more about Warmakuna Hope, visit warmakunahope.org.