CAMBRIDGE — Whenever anyone asks Priscilla Gonsalves whether it is worth it — and they always ask when they learn she is a child protection worker in some of the grittiest communities in the South American nation of Guyana — she begins her reply with: “There is this 14-year-old girl . . . ”
In her job, Gonsalves said, she travels from Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city, by bus and rickety boat to small villages where child abuse is alleged or suspected. Alone, she patrols hundreds of communities whose combined population tops 7,000, farming hamlets that dot the countryside and fishing villages bordering the massive Essequibo River.
The 14-year-old she met in one of those villages had been abused for years by men close to her family, Gonsalves said, and was too traumatized to accept counseling.
“When I first met this girl, she wouldn’t speak. She wouldn’t open up,” Gonsalves said. “There was no way to get through to her, and then I heard about Lesley.”
That would be Lesley University in Cambridge, where on Saturday, 28-year-old Gonsalves and a dozen other schoolteachers and social workers from Guyana will graduate with master’s degrees in trauma, sensitive assessment, intervention, and consultation. If the degree title seems oddly cobbled together, it is because the program was tailored specifically for Guyanese social workers who largely lack specialized training to address domestic violence and child abuse.
Guyana is a small country, whose population of 735,000 is barely larger than that of Boston. Tensions among its ethnically diverse groups — with people of African, Spanish, and Indian descent — often makes social work difficult, Gonsalves and her classmates said.
“It has a lot to do with people being afraid of talking about mental health, especially in the villages,” she said. “It is a dirty word. And it is a lot worse, I think, because across the different ethnic groups there is a suspicion and concern about how one group will view another if the other is getting helped by us.”
In fall 2010, Catherine Koverola, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Lesley University, along with officials from UNICEF and the Guyanese government’s social service agencies, began designing the specialized counseling curriculum.
A year later the program launched, and 13 Guyanese teachers and social workers enrolled. They have spent a grueling three years in the Interdisciplinary Studies Program of Lesley’s Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences: maintaining their full-time jobs while taking classes in Georgetown from local and visiting Lesley instructors, as well as from instructors in Cambridge via Skype. They also traveled to Cambridge periodically to study for two-week stints at Lesley.
“We spent a long time planning and designing this program,” said Priya Manickchand, Guyana’s minister of education, who is in Cambridge to attend the graduation ceremony. “What was especially important to us was to make sure that the curriculum factored in cultural nuance and respected that fact that while domestic violence is universal and is rightfully condemned everwhere, the path to correcting it and ending it may differ in different cultures.”
Stephen Bactawar, 43, who teaches high school social studies in Georgetown said some Guyanese parents value hunting or fishing more than education.
“As a teacher I observed lots of domestic situations and wanted to intervene in the children’s lives, and work along with the parents, especially when I learned the parents were not playing a great role in their childrens’ educations,” Bactawar says. “But it was extremely difficult to get disengaged parents involved.”
Bactawar says his studies at Lesley helped him better understand the parents’ mental health and emotional issues, so he has had a greater chance of convincing them to get involved.
Over the past year or so, Bactawar said he has begun helping teachers recognize signs of abuse and create strategies to work with parents. He is making progress, but not all child abuse manifests in physical injuries, he said, and that can make problems harder to detect.
Indeed, Kaycina Jardine, Guyana’s 33-year-old manager of government adoption programs and a Lesley classmate of Bactawar and Gonsalves, cited a 2012 UNICEF report that found the most common form of abuse in Guyana was neglect, not physical assault.
“My thesis focused on child victims of sexual abuse, but the even larger problem was children abandoned, not fed, not clothed, not taught, not treated properly,” Jardine said.
Fine arts therapy, long a staple at Lesley, has been part of the program for the Guyanese students.
Jardine said that coaching caregivers at orphanages in how to teach dance and music to their young charges gave her insight into what they needed to care for the children.
“It’s interesting that some of what is making the biggest difference isn’t complicated,” Jardine said. “Music and dance, for example, are two things people in our country love.”
The dancing helps the children feel more comfortable.
“We had 3- and 4-year-olds beating their heads against the wall because they were frustrated and didn’t know how to express it,” she said. Now, after experiencing the arts therapy, she said, “they dance, they relax, they open up.”
During one of her recent three-hour bus and boat treks to the villages, Gonsalves said she experienced the greatest result yet from her graduate work, including the art therapy.
“That 14-year-old girl? She was talking and laughing and was happy to see me,” she said. “She talked. Our breakthrough came through a drawing she made, while we listened to music together. Now, she is out of her shell, and after that session, she was able to testify in court against the person who had assaulted and abused her.”
The abuser was convicted, Gonsalves said, and the girl now lives in a safe home.
■ Correction: Because of an editing error, a headline and photo caption with the print version of this story incorrectly identified Lesley University.