USC Students Engage Children Every Week

Knowledge in Action:

USC Students Engage Children Every Week

By Cristy Lytal


Two days before Halloween, the lounge of USC’s Centennial apartments looked like a cross between a pumpkin patch and an art supply store.

More than a dozen USC student volunteers and an equal number of local children — ranging in age from pre-school to high school — glued feathers, felt and glitter to their pumpkins.

This festive occasion was the weekly Thursday night meeting of ENGAGE, a program run by volunteers from the occupational therapy special interest community housed in Centennial and the Pre-Occupational Therapy Club. ENGAGE provides dinner, structured homework time, guest speakers, field trips and activities for neighborhood children.

“The main vision is for us to produce and create space for these kids to engage in positive activities,” said Celso Delgado, a Centennial resident adviser and occupational therapy doctoral resident who has been involved with the program for several years.

ENGAGE began when Jesus Diaz and Renée Burwell, then graduate students at USC, noticed a dearth of after-school programming for neighborhood children.

“We used to be troublemakers before the program,” said seventh grader David Vega, who has been attending ENGAGE for years.

According to Burwell – who graduated with her Master of Public Administration from the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development in 2008 – the main purpose of ENGAGE is “to promote the desire to go to college through mentoring and doing activities at USC. We’ll take them to football and basketball games so they get the idea of what college is like and how it can be fun.”

Now in its third year, ENGAGE is applying to be part of Roots & Shoots, a youth-driven, global network founded by Jane Goodall, a distinguished adjunct professor of occupational science, occupational therapy and anthropology at USC.

Goodall first came to USC 20 years ago at the request of Florence Clark, associate dean and chair of the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the USC School of Dentistry.

Doctoral students in occupational science were working with chimps in captivity at the Los Angeles Zoo, and Clark thought Goodall would have interest in their research. Goodall did.

In addition, the naturalistic observational methodology Goodall had used to study the occupations of chimpanzees in the wild was now being adopted for studies on human occupation in the newly-formed discipline of occupational science. Her interest turned into the long collaboration with USC.

“Roots & Shoots is a service organization led by young people who want to bring about positive change in their communities,” said Stephanie Mielke, an occupational therapy instructor. “So it’s the children deciding which problems they want to tackle and coming up with a plan for how to do it. I love that approach.”

Miriam White, the occupational therapy master’s student in charge of the program this year, is imbuing ENGAGE with Goodall’s grassroots ethic by inviting some of the high school-aged participants to become junior counselors.

“Year three, they asked me, ‘You want to be a junior counselor?’ ” said high school student Ilana Regalaco. “It’s a big thing for me. That means I get to do something. I get to help. An occupational therapist can change lives, help people, help children. And that’s what I want to do. I want to be an OT.”

In addition to helping with pumpkin decoration, Regalaco has joined the USC volunteers in leading lessons in karate, drumming, poetry and cooking.

Recent speakers have included guests from the USC School of Dentistry and serveLA, and visitors from the USC Gould School of Law and the ROTC department will give presentations in upcoming weeks.

Sixth grader Annan Fazal, whose father attends graduate school at USC, noticed the difference the program is making for him and his peers. “Behavior is getting better,” he said. “Cooperation is getting better, and speaking and writing. Everybody is improving.”

White finds these changes rewarding for everyone involved. “It’s good for the volunteers as well, because most of them are occupational therapy students,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to practice what they’re learning in the classroom.”

Photo by Allison Engel
High school student Ilana Regalaco, left, a junior counselor in the program, helped Joel Kigoonya, 9, decorate his pumpkin.