Student’s Hardship Inspires Volunteers to Help Children with Cancer in Puerto Rico

Student’s Hardship Inspires Volunteers to Help Children with Cancer in Puerto Rico

UCF student Akasha Palou, center, created a volunteer trip to Puerto Rico through the Alternative Break Program.

A University of Central Florida student’s experience with economic hardship and childhood illness has inspired a volunteer trip to Puerto Rico, where a group of students will help bring joy to pediatric cancer patients and their families in need this holiday season.

Akasha Palou, a senior studying biology, planned the 10-person trip that centers on volunteering for Fundación CAP, an organization that helps low-income families with children who have cancer. Its services span from help with medical bills and family counseling, to a lodge where families can stay for free near Centro Médico de Puerto Rico, the hospital where children in the program are treated. The UCF volunteers from Dec. 13-19 will help with maintenance around the lodge, plus organize a Christmas party for the families and patients to lift their spirits.

Fundación CAP’s work hits close to home for Palou, a Puerto Rico native whose family struggled financially when her father was unemployed for two years. Her family of nine lived in a rented house near San Juan that had no electricity or running water when she was a teenager.

“That’s why I chose this trip. I understand it can be hard to pay for things you need,” said Palou, who added Puerto Rico’s economic recession has increased the demand for organizations such as Fundación CAP. Puerto Rico has more than $70 billion of debt and a nearly 12 percent unemployment rate, spurring some schools and hospitals to close.

Her father’s job search led the family to Washington State and then to Palm Bay, Fla., while Palou was in high school. When her father was laid off from a job at Microsoft, the family returned to Puerto Rico to be near family and live in a low-cost environment. Constantly moving and having to make new friends made Palou more extraverted and volunteer regularly with animal shelters and church organizations.

“All the changes I went through and challenges with my family showed me that’s why I needed to go to college – to make a career and make a change,” said Palou, a recipient of UCF’s Think 30 Scholarship and the UCF Grant.

Palou aspires to be a pediatric oncologist, inspired by her younger brother Jean-Paul who has had Tourette’s syndrome since he was 6 years old.

“A frustration of mine and my parents is Tourette’s syndrome doesn’t have a cure and it is unknown what causes it. I remember going from hospital to hospital, trying to find a physician who really cared and was most interested in his well-being. That frustration reminded me that kids with cancer go through this every day. I want to be one of the physicians who care,” Palou said.

The volunteer trip to Puerto Rico is part of UCF’s Alternative Break Program that sponsors students during winter and spring breaks. Students pay $500 for international trips, $250 for domestic trips and $100 for trips during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. The remainder of the cost is covered by Alternative Break Programs’ budget that stems from an Activity and Service Fee, said Chantel Carter, associate director of the Office of Student Involvement.

Alternative Break Program has given Palou an outlet to spur change, and as a program coordinator, designs and plans trips from scratch with a nearly $5,000 budget.

“I’m honored. I proposed this idea [to volunteer in Puerto Rico] not thinking it was going to go through,” she said. “For them to trust me with this, I think it furthers our student body’s potential to ignite volunteerism. I’m very happy I can do this in my hometown and help people I love.”

Although Palou’s family has improved financially and now lives comfortably in a home they own in Puerto Rico, Palou’s desire to help has not faded.

“There are people out there who need help more than we ever did,” she said.