Student dreams of expanding PT in island community

profile picture of Kalijah Belardo

March 13, 2024 – DENTON – When Kalijah Belardo misses home, she thinks about her family and their car rides to the beach. She reminisces about the food, the community, the clear blue waters, the white sand, the palm trees gently waving in the fresh air and the most beautiful sunsets. 

If it sounds like a tropical paradise, it is. 

Belardo is from St. Croix, one of the three islands that make up the United States Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea. She is also a first-year student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program on the Texas Woman’s Houston campus. And, although she misses home and her close-knit family every single day, she is determined to become a physical therapist to inspire and help the people of St. Croix. 

“I just feel that the people on my island are so special,” Belardo said. “I just love them so much. My life can be great somewhere else but there is something about being on my island, the energy of my island, the people. I feel like my people have been in survival mode for many years. It’s important that our people come back home and take care of each other.” 

Kajilah Belardo in hat sits on beach chair on beach under an umbrellla
Kalijah Belardo reads a book at sunset at the Frederiksted Pier, the western side of St. Croix.

While most days are sunny and warm, St. Croix is still a small island, 22 miles long, and lacks many resources. In 2017, Hurricane Maria damaged or destroyed 70% of the island’s buildings, including the only hospital. 

“There is no in-patient physical therapy on my island,” Belardo said. “I think that’s very sad. There is probably one local physical therapist. I think it’s so important to have local clinicians, physicians, healthcare providers. I feel like my island – and throughout the Caribbean – we  have a disconnect with healthcare. A friendly face is something I think that’s very important. That’s why I really want to go back home.”

But first she had to leave home. 

“I think my senior year of high school I wasn’t even sure I was going to go college,” Belardo said. “There was a lot of self doubt. In my community where I was raised, there were not a lot of people that went to college. There wasn’t a mentor or anything like that.”

Almost on a whim, Belardo enrolled in college a few weeks before the fall semester began.

“It takes a lot to make that sacrifice to leave,” Belardo said. “I am privileged to leave home. I worked hard to get where I am. I came from a situation where my mom made it possible for me to be able to do whatever it is I want. She guided me in a direction: ‘You have all the things so just go ahead and do it.’ I’m grateful to my mom for allowing me to just be who I want to be. I’m thankful that I chose something great.”

a sunset on the ocean with a pier in the foreground

Belardo graduated from Huston-Tillotson University in Austin with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. She learned about physical therapy in high school and chose the major closest to it. 

“There are so many reasons why I chose PT,” Belardo said. “I realized how there weren't many people talking about PT. I did a little research, and I realized it was so undervalued. I thought about how many athletes on my island were injured and stopped doing stuff because of injuries. There were so many things that came together. I fell in love with it.”

Before deciding to go full-speed ahead with PT school, she returned to St. Croix to work as a PT technician for a year. 

“I liked being able to interact with different people from different walks of everyday life and seeing their progress, even just the small things,” Belardo said. “The minor details were rewarding but those connections with those patients as a tech meant so much to me. I think when I do become a therapist, I can do so much more. These people are my people. It’s a big thing for me to impact my community. That’s the part I love the most.” 

Belardo has big goals for her island. 

“I used to tell myself to stop dreaming so big because if it doesn’t happen, I’ll be so disappointed,” Belardo said. “Sometimes, I get scared about talking about things I haven't started yet. For my island, I have some big goals: health, education for everyone. I want to establish educational programs for education across the board. I want to spread the importance of moving your body and exercising.” 

Right now, she is focused on PT school. In order to become a licensed physical therapist, one needs a bachelor’s degree and a clinical doctorate degree from an accredited program. 

“PT school is challenging,” Belardo said. “I knew it was going to be challenging, I didn’t know how much. I like it. It makes me become the best version of myself. TWU does a good job preparing you as a therapist. I love the challenge.” 

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Page last updated 10:37 AM, March 13, 2024