For 2017 graduate Sophie Bellenis, becoming an occupational therapist was a perfect combination of her love of Tanzania and passion to help children.
After graduating from the University of Virginia with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and economics, Sophie Bellenis didn’t have a concrete career direction in mind but knew one thing for sure – a trip to Tanzania sounded like a good idea.
Taking a leap of faith, she moved to the African country in 2012 to volunteer with the Tanzanian Children's Fund. The nonprofit had been started by a close family friend, and it was here that she fell in love with the country’s people, landscapes, and community-based lifestyle.
Between her first two trips to the country, Bellenis worked at a summer camp for autistic children and teens in the Boston area, which sparked her desire to work with this population in the future. It was after meeting some occupational therapists in Tanzania working with children that she discovered a way to merge her interests.
“Many of the children that they were working with had physical disabilities, and that’s where I saw the critical role that an occupational therapist can play,” she noted. “I learned that an occupational therapist needs to lead to really affect change.”
While in Tanzania, she applied to become part of the Institute’s initial class of its new Doctor of Occupational Therapy program, which began in 2014.
“I always knew I wanted to work in pediatrics after growing up around children – babysitting, working at summer camps, and watching my mom teach – so going into occupational therapy was a perfect blend,” Bellenis said. “I’d really developed a love for Tanzania and desired to learn how to sustainably make an impact there, so I was thrilled when I found a way to bring the two together.”
While in the three-year program, Bellenis completed her 14-week Advanced Practicum Experience at the Plaster House in Tanzania, a pediatric pre- and post-surgical home for children with treatable disabilities. While there, she worked closely with occupational therapists, nurses, and doctors, helping to provide care in a feeding program for babies with cleft palate, in its clubfoot clinic, in post-surgical splinting, and in surgeries. She spent her time learning, listening, and understanding how her skills and training could be helpful to a variety of populations.
“Diane Smith made my dream of international work possible through her support and guidance,” Bellenis said of her mentor, an OT professor and the program’s Doctoral Capstone Coordinator. “This opportunity was ultimately integral to my personal and professional development and my career. She gave me the skills and freedom I needed to make it happen.”
“Sophie exemplifies the type of student, graduate, and alum that truly makes a difference locally, nationally, and globally,” Dr. Smith said. “I am extremely proud to have been a part of her journey and am looking forward to where that journey takes her in the future.”
Bellenis noted how social and occupational justice topics are weaved throughout the curriculum, which led to her and her classmates evaluating their skills, their roles as clinicians, and their own biases.
“Learning about OT through this lens forced me to reflect deeply on my work and my goals and evaluate my role within that,” she said. “This played a huge role in understanding how to promote sustainable development in communities around the world. It requires you to honest with yourself about if and how you will be the best person to help others.”
After graduating in 2017, Bellenis co-founded a nonprofit called Asali. The organization, which means honey in the official Tanzanian language of Swahili, has worked for the past five years with Simba’s Footprint’s Community Center, a nonprofit that aims to unlock youth potential through creative programming and community-driven solutions, and other locally led, grassroots initiatives in the area. For its part specifically, Asali supports English education, music education, program development, and health care and in 2021, invested over $10,500 in locally led initiatives which has assisted more than 2,000 young people.
Bellenis, who is Asali’s treasurer, is also an OT at Neuropsychology and Education Services for Children and Adolescents (NESCA). There she is part of a transition team that provides educational occupational therapy assessment, transition assessment, and consultation, and runs its Real-life Skills and Executive Function coaching programs which provide community- and home-based coaching for functional skill development. Previously, the Richmond, Vermont resident worked for the Northshore Education Consortium, the Salem Public Schools, and the Northeast ARC.
So where is Bellenis off to next?
“My work will guide me to my next adventure, whether that’s supporting Asali as we take on more partners in Tanzania or identifying and filling gaps in student transition support here stateside,” she said. “Whatever comes my way, I’m eager and able to take it on.”