Volunteer Spotlight: HVO Golden Apple Award Recipient Janna Beling, PhD, PT

Dr. Janna Beling’s first international medical volunteer assignment did not coincide with her first visit to a resource-scarce country. As the daughter of a professor of international relations and political science, Dr. Beling spent years living abroad as a child, including time spent living in multiple low-income countries.

As she grew older, and earned a graduate degree in physical therapy and a doctorate in exercise science, these early experiences evolved into an enduring research interest in rehabilitation practices to promote physical function and minimize disability in patients in low-resource countries. This interest coupled with the mentorship from the late Judith Canfield-Henry, PT, MSEd, EdD—a much-loved HVO volunteer and former colleague of Dr. Beling—led to the completion of more than 100 service days at HVO project sites in Suriname, Vietnam and Malawi.

“[Dr. Canfield-Henry] shared her passion and her extraordinary contribution to the field of physical therapy with me and it was contagious,” Dr. Beling explained in a recent interview.

This passion inspired Dr. Beling to make a significant contribution to the field in her own right. In 2016, she received a Fulbright grant to support her work with the physiotherapy program at the University of Malawi College of Medicine. Dr. Beling was also instrumental in the launch of HVO’s physical therapy project in partnership with the DaNang University of Pharmacy and Medical Technology. She nows serves as project director for this project, as well as HVO’s physical therapy project at the DaNang Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Hospital (DNORH), which she has overseen since 2008.

“The change from the former ‘DaNang Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center’ to the ‘DaNang Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Hospital’ has been dramatic and remarkable,” she states.

Aside from the expansion of the DNORH facilities, which have transformed a one-story building to a six-floor hospital accommodating over 300 patients, Dr. Beling has seen a significant change in the approach to treatment among physical therapy providers, who now favor more active, functional treatment modalities.

According to Dr. Beling, the transformative influence of her international service has been bi-directional.

“My international volunteer experiences have been life changing and have caused me to recognize that our physical therapy profession has a major contribution to make in furthering global health.”

Dr. Beling believes education is a critical tool for physical therapists seeking to improve global health because “by teaching others one can reach many more patients through one’s students.” With this in mind, Dr. Beling created a global health elective for physical therapy students at California State University, Northridge, where she serves as Chair of the Physical Therapy Department. In addition to preparing students to volunteer internationally, this course equips students to serve diverse patient populations in their own community through its service-learning component. So far, through the course, Dr. Beling has mentored more than 60 students who she hopes will continue to volunteer their services both at home and abroad.

Dr. Beling also remains in contact with the international colleagues and mentees she has met at HVO project sites at conferences, through email, and even on Facebook. Keeping in touch with these colleagues has provided Dr. Beling with the opportunity to watch them grow and advance in their careers. For example, during a recent American Physical Therapy Association Combined Sections Meeting, Dr. Beling encountered a Surinamese student she taught during her first HVO assignment. She was delighted to learn the student had gone on to complete her PhD.

Maintaining contact also enables Dr. Beling to continue the mutually beneficial exchange that occurs during the course of her volunteer assignments, which she described during our interview:

“The exchange of information and knowledge is not unidirectional – it goes both ways between HVO volunteers and locals in the host country.”

Are you a physical therapist inspired by Dr. Beling’s story? Start your own international volunteer journey by visiting HVO in the exhibit hall at the upcoming APTA CSM. We will be at booth #1654 waiting to answer your global volunteering questions!

Do you know an HVO volunteer who, like Dr. Beling, has made an exceptional contribution to HVO’s mission? Nominate them today for the 2019 HVO Golden Apple Award! Nominations are due February 22, 2019. Read our profiles of other 2018 Golden Apple honorees by visiting the “Health Worker Story” category on the HVO blog.


  1. Thanks for your message, Dr. McNamara! Please visit our physical therapy program page to see where in the world you can volunteer. To get the process started, you can complete the brief volunteer application and our volunteer coordinator, Kim Rodgers will be in touch to discuss the right project for you (we accept volunteers on a rolling basis). For more about the volunteer placement process, check out this short video.

  2. This is an amazing story!

    I am a pediatric physical therapist with a desire to engage in global public health through my profession. How can I get involved?

    Katelyn McNamara, DPT

HVO: Transforming Lives through Education

Health Volunteers Overseas © 2009 - 2019

1900 L Street, NW #310 Washington, DC 20036
Tel: (202) 296-0928 | Fax: (202) 296-8018 |

Catalogue for Philanthropy
Global Impact
BBB Wise Giving Alliance