Occupational Therapist, Clare Byrne ’10/M.S. ’12 has dedicated her career to caring for and providing treatment to children with disabilities. After working for both Newark’s Children Specialized Hospital and Advanced Therapy of America, Byrne has decided to bring her skill set overseas through her self-developed nonprofit organization, Imprint Hope. Centered in Uganda, Imprint Hope focuses on raising awareness, breaking down barriers, educating communities and providing therapy for children who are often abandoned or misunderstood due to their disabilities.
Byrne’s passion for Occupational Therapy grew out of her relationship with her sister Katherine. “My sister has a pervasive developmental disorder and greatly struggles to communicate and move her muscles in a purposeful manner. … I used to go to her therapy sessions and it would touch my heart when Katherine’s face lit up when she felt understood by her therapists.” The growth Byrne saw in her sister made what she witnessed on a 2014 service trip to Uganda especially heartbreaking. While working in an orphanage, she would see parents abandon their child with a disability, being unable or unwilling to care of them. “I’ve seen how therapy can change a child’s life,” says Byrne, “so seeing that that care is not available in other countries broke my heart. … I can’t know that problem exists without doing something about it.”
Imprint Hope was born out of Byrne’s concern and is built on a simple premise: that every human being has his or her own fingerprint, and is capable of leaving a unique, valuable “print” on the world. Byrne has begun the journey of transmitting this message not only to children with disabilities, but to their parents and communities as well. “It’s about empowering the culture to [help them] see potential in children with disabilities. I can go over there and provide therapy, but unless parents recognize the value, dignity and beautiful purpose of their child with a disability [change won’t be permanent].” Ultimately, the plan is to create a rehabilitation clinic in the Northern region of Uganda where a high prevalence of children with disabilities have been abandoned. “We have the general area we want to target and construct a clinic, but it’s going to take time to make a sustainable presence and impact the community at large.” This is an ingrained culture of disregarding children with disabilities, therefore, changing this viewpoint will require providing a constant loving example to the local people and a patient understanding of them as well.
Byrne plans to go back to Uganda in mid-August. In the meantime, she’s been handling the business and communications side of running a nonprofit, navigating her way by using the expertise of others and a few Google searches. “It’s been a journey of learning, being humble, and asking other people for help” says Byrne, recounting her experiences filling a 1023 form (used to allow tax exemptions for donors), building a board of advisors, finding supporters, and creating an online presence. More than anything, Byrne has been using her time to network and get others involved. “I’ve been working on fundraising and networking; it’s been a lot of sharing with people to get their hearts as invested in this as mine. … Because whether they’re going to Uganda or staying in the United States they’re an integral part of [the mission].
When asked how her time at Seton Hall has helped with her development of Imprint Hope, Byrne points to the role the Hall has played in cultivating compassion in her practice. “My professors and my clinical fieldworks [helped me to see that] we [occupational therapists] are meeting patients at the hardest point in their life,” says Byrne. “The professors helped me [learn] to approach every patient interaction with heartfelt compassion and understanding. Every person is on a journey and our role as therapists is to help them achieve their optimal potential.” Byrne also mentioned the support she received from her professors when expressing her dream to work abroad. “I remember talking to my advisor, Thomas Mernar, and telling him about my dream to do medical missions in a developing country. It was encouraging because he didn’t bash it or make it seem unrealistic, but told me to pursue the dream.”
After completing the rehabilitation clinic, Byrne hopes to build a school for children with disabilities. She is ambitious, but realizes permanent change and growth will take time. “It’s been and will continue to be a huge learning experience. And I know once I get [to Uganda] there will be many integral pieces of the mission to manage. From developing trustworthy relationships in Uganda, managing the business side of the nonprofit, learning about constructing a sustainable infrastructure and sustaining donor support. … But by taking things one step at time and being present to the people and challenges in front of me, I have hope that all the pieces will fall into place.”
When asked what piece of advice she would give to current Seton Hall students, she highlights the importance of always seeing the inherent value in others. “I think that in our day and in age it’s so easy to turn inward and to turn our backs to each other, but we can really change the world by being a light and utilizing our unique talents and gifts to serve others.”