Physical Therapy Students Serve Communities Near and Far

The Doctor of Physical Therapy program requires three years of full-time study, but this rigorous curriculum and schedule has not deterred UNC PT students from regularly volunteering to use their time and talents to help those in need.

Physical Therapy Students Serve Communities Near and Far click to enlarge All 20 team members of the Tyrell County Service Learning Trip joined forces with county officials and community members to pick up trash along a stretch of Railroad Street, filling 323 large trash bags.

Whether they are providing free care to underserved individuals through the UNC Student Health Action Coalition (SHAC) clinic, organizing an annual golf tournament to raise money for the Foundation for Physical Therapy, or traveling to economically disadvantaged areas in North Carolina and Guatemala, UNC PT students consistently go above and beyond to help make life better for others.

“No one requires or pressures students to participate in these activities,” said PT Division Director and Professor Rick Segal.  “They take the initiative and devote a great deal of time and energy to make these endeavors succeed.   Their dedication is really remarkable, especially when you consider the other demands they are facing.”

Through SHAC, physical therapy students join students from other health care fields to provide free services to local underserved individuals and communities.  PT students work with patients directly while having a faculty preceptor on-site for advice and guidance.

“SHAC represents an incredible learning opportunity for students,” said SHAC PT student co-coordinator Megan Eyler.  “We help provide community members with free access to physical therapy and are in turn able to apply the knowledge and skills we have obtained in class to evaluate and treat patients under the supervision of our faculty members.”

Serving as co-coordinators has given Eyler and Jen Tooher valuable leadership experiences as well.

“Being a coordinator has provided me with the opportunity to manage, delegate, recruit, and adjust to circumstances that are unexpected in a clinic setting,” said Tooher.  “I've gotten to know great leaders in other disciplines, to brainstorm and problem solve using an interdisciplinary approach, and to lead my peers.  Aside from being a great opportunity to get in the clinic and to work with patients, being a coordinator has forced me to think in terms of how to make the clinic run more effectively and efficiently.”

For the past several years, UNC physical therapy students have organized an annual golf tournament in the fall to raise money for the Foundation for Physical Therapy as well as the UNC Student Physical Therapy Association (SPTA).  Students recruit teams and sponsors for the event, collect gift certificates and items from local businesses to use as raffle prizes and silent auction items, sell UNC-branded items such as t-shirts and pint glasses, and coordinate all aspects of the tournament for players.

The 2010 tournament was such a success, UNC Chapel Hill won the “Biggest Stretch School” award in the Pittsburgh-Marquette Challenge, a national student fundraising drive for the Foundation for Physical Therapy.  The “Biggest Stretch School” award recognizes the school that achieved the most dramatic increase in support for the foundation in a particular year.  Organizers of the most recent SPTA golf tournament, held October 14, 2011, are still tallying the total proceeds raised.


PT Students prepared and delivered meals
to people in need during the service-learning
trip to Tyrell County, N.C.

In March of 2011, eleven physical therapy students spent their spring break assisting with various community service projects in Tyrell County, N.C.  The students were part of a 20-person team that included UNC PT faculty member Vicki Mercer, as well as faculty, staff, and students from the UNC School of Nursing, the Gillings School of Public Health, and the School of Social Work.  This was the third year that UNC PT took part in the interdisciplinary service learning trip.

Volunteers tackled projects that included promoting positive attitudes toward physical activity among local adolescents and their families, mapping out accessible and safe walking trails in the downtown Columbia, N.C., area, preparing and delivering meals to residents in need, assisting residents with various household tasks, updating patient education materials at the Columbia Medical Center, and organizing a falls assessment day at the Tyrrell County Senior Center.   Mercer and several physical therapy students also made home visits to assess the need for physical therapy for two patients and evaluated three patients at the medical center.   All 20 team members joined forces with county officials and community members to pick up trash along a stretch of Railroad Street, filling 323 large trash bags.

Seven UNC Chapel Hill Physical Therapy students and four PT faculty members, Lisa Johnston, Dawn Phillips, Katie Ollendick, and Sadye Errickson, traveled to Guatemala in May for the second UNC PT Outreach.  Initiated in 2010, PT Outreach is a service project designed to meet the needs of underserved populations and increase cultural competence among future physical therapists.

Students and faculty members worked with the patients and staff at Obras Sociales del Hermano Pedro, a multiservice facility in Antigua, Guatemala, that provides a home and care for people of all ages who are mentally or physically challenged or chronically ill.  The primary objective of the visit was to teach the Las Obras therapists new techniques and approaches that would help patients become more functional over time.  During the trip, the group also visited a rural primary care clinic and a school for children with disabilities.


UNC PT students with patients from Las Obras.

“The opportunity to treat severely involved patients with cerebral palsy served as an indescribable learning experience,” said Bevin Mraw DPT ’11.   “Furthermore, educating the Guatemalan therapists through in-services and labs will hopefully make lasting changes in the therapy these patients receive.  What we as students learned from the Guatemalan therapists and their patients was invaluable and will undoubtedly help shape our future careers.  We hope this trip will continue to blossom and that the relationship between UNC Physical Therapy and Las Obras Hospital will continue to grow for years to come.”

Plans and fundraising are already underway for PT Outreach 2012.  Visit for photos and journal entries about the 2011 trip.  To make a secure gift online to support the 2012 PT Outreach, visit and choose UNC PT Outreach from the drop down menu.