When Nakedra Burke left her apartment early one morning in March to make her way to the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus, the skies were cloudy, dull, and gray.
Nevertheless, Burke, a first-year Miller School of Medicine physical therapy student, headed to her group’s most anticipated event of the year, the 32nd Hurricane Challenge, a day where the physical therapy students host nearly 200 Miami-Dade County Public Schools pupils living with disabilities.
The elementary schoolchildren were accompanied by about 50 teachers for a day of fun. And for the physical therapy students, it was a chance to get real-life experience. This year’s Hurricane Challenge was themed “Born to Be Wild” and featured an assortment of animal print décor and goodie bags filled with toys and snacks.
“Nothing, not even the rain, could stop us from what we had planned today,” said Burke, an El Paso, Texas, native. “Thankfully, by the start of the event, the skies had cleared, and we were able to meet so many smiling faces as they exited their school buses and made their way to Lakeside Patio.”
Jose Palomo, one of the co-organizers of the event and a second-year student, said the event, which was established in 1986, served two purposes. Not only is it meant to provide University students with a one-of-a-kind, hands-on experience, it’s also aimed at helping people see that children with disabilities are capable of having physical fun.
“It’s a day to not only give back to our local community, but to also let this particular community know that there’s a lot of support out there,” said Palomo. “This isn’t just about the hands-on experience either. It’s about them coming to an event especially designed for them. We believe that planning a fun day with adaptive activities is helping them psychologically, too.”
Co-organizer and second-year student Juliana Merighi dedicated many weekends to raising funds to support this year’s event. In October 2019, she was one of three students who volunteered to lead the affair.
“We started planning and fundraising the third week of January and we would meet once a week,” said Merighi. “We hosted a volleyball tournament, exercise classes, and more to raise a total of $8,000.”
Additional donations were contributed by local sponsors, including Woody Beckham of the Woody Foundation, which aims to increase awareness about paralysis and other disabilities; Publix; and Miami’s Best Pizza.
Organizers and volunteers curated the event to be able to support schoolchildren with prosthetics, wheelchairs, and other special needs. Overall, the Hurricane Challenge provided University students with a “greater appreciation for the abilities of children with disabilities,” said Robert Gailey, Ph.D., P.T., professor of physical therapy. The day of fun included lots of exciting activities such as dancing, arts and crafts, a dunk tank, cornhole, face painting, and more.
“They are just like every other kid,” said Dr. Gailey. “Many of these young students do not usually have the opportunity to go on field trips with the rest of the students during the school year, so we welcome them to our campus for the experience of a lifetime.”
Neva Kirk-Sanchez, Ph.D., P.T., who graduated from the program in 1990, is chair of the Department of Physical Therapy. She hopes that hosting the event on the Coral Gables campus will inspire students outside of the program to get involved in their own service projects.
“I think it’s really nice that we have students walking by who asked, ‘What’s that all about?’ and want to learn more about what we’re doing,” said Dr. Kirk-Sanchez. “It’s really great visibility for students in the program, and the department as a whole, to showcase the community outreach that means so much to us.”
For Shane Shapiro, the Hurricane Challenges master of ceremonies and a second-year student, the event came full-circle because his mom was once a physical therapy student and also hosted a Hurricane Challenge years ago.
“It’s amazing that I’m able to be here today providing the same joy that she was able to,” Shapiro said. “I am inspired by her and it feels good to be following in her footsteps.”