Soon after graduating in 2012 with majors in Sociology and Spanish, Leigh Schommer underwent brain surgery for her epilepsy. The recovery was long and slow, but the improvement was astounding. When the number and frequency of seizures diminished dramatically, Spanish Professor Jaime Perozo encouraged her to continue her Spanish studies while teaching English at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Puebla, Mexico. What began as a 2-month commitment to teach soon turned into a 12-month stay with a full workload of public education activities around epilepsy.
“When I first got to Puebla, I was looking for an organization where I could volunteer for epilepsy, but couldn’t find anything,” Schommer said. “There are so many events in the U.S. that support epilepsy research and raise awareness so I decided that if I couldn’t be in the U.S. to participate, I would create something here.”
That was the beginning of Grupo de Autoayuda Epilepsia Puebla. Schommer met with neurologists and other healthcare providers and gave her first presentation at a hospital in June 2013. That day, she and a local neurologist gave a presentation on the basic factors of epilepsy and then hosted the “Walk for Epilepsy” at a local park where they handed out brochures.
“At the end of the day, a woman came to our table asking about our group,” Schommer recalled. “When I began to explain, I saw that she had tears in her eyes. She told me that her son had been diagnosed with epilepsy a long time ago, and they had never met anyone else with this condition. She hugged me and asked how she could help with the group.”
Since that time, the group has had five events, eleven monthly meetings on different themes related to epilepsy, and two conferences, including a regional conference with attendees from various states and a university conference that included students. In addition, Schommer gave more than 50 presentations in schools and businesses, and new groups have formed in seven other states in Mexico.
“Epilepsy can occur at any time in one’s life,” Schommer said. “The intention is to let people with epilepsy know that they are not alone.”
Today, Schommer is back in the United States pursuing a Master in Social Work at Portland State University. She plans to return to Latin America to spread the word about epilepsy when she graduates.