When COVID-19 sent students in all levels of education home to work on their studies online, clinical fieldwork for healthcare programs was also affected, and the Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program at Wallace State was no exception.
Without completion of the internships, students cannot complete their program, thereby delaying their graduation and entrance into the field.
Rather than wait until things could get back to normal, Laura Smith, director of the Wallace State Community College Occupational Therapy Assistant program, began working on finding other options for her students. Normally students would have been placed in traditional fieldwork sites such as clinics, hospitals and skilled nursing facilities where occupational therapists and/or occupational therapy assistants would be on staff.
“Within our standards set forth by our accreditation board, there was a standard that said you could put a student in what’s called an emerging practice site, so an area that doesn’t have OT or OTA, but their mission and purpose aligns with the values and skills of our program,” Smith said.
After doing research and evaluations of all of the sites, Smith worked out agreements with several facilities in the surrounding areas at which students could complete their fieldwork. Among the facilities in Cullman County are Flourish of Cullman, The Link of Cullman County, Hope Horses and the Youth Advocate Program.
Flourish of Cullman is a non-profit that provides community-based support to individuals with developmental disabilities who would like to live as independently as possible. Flourish Executive Director Melissa Dew is a 2003 graduate of the WSCC OTA program. She serves on the program’s Advisory Board and is a past recipient of an Alumni of the Year award. She worked in the field for 13 years before establishing Flourish after seeing a need for such services in the county.
Wallace State students Sherry McDowell of Boaz and Jessica Fox of Arley, were assigned to Flourish for their 8-week fieldwork.
“They are participating in life-coaching individuals and also job coaching,” Dew said. “We have several individuals that we have assigned to them, so they’re looking from an OTA standpoint for what adaptations they can make to help them be successful in their job. Which is really something we need.”
For example, the students assisted a client with cerebral palsy who wanted to be able to cook for herself and become more independent. Issues with fatigue were impeding that ability, so the students worked with her on energy conservation techniques and other ways to promote her being independent with cooking.
“We look at a person in a holistic manner, so we ask what is that whole person’s issue and what can we do to help them be successful,” Dew said, adding the students are also assisting with the social events they host for clients to build social skills. They are also working on plans for an independent living space Flourish plans to offer clients who want a trial run at living on their own.
“That’s just a perfect fit with OT and OTA, because that’s exactly what we do is look at people holistically and try to let them be as independent as possible in their day to day life,” Smith said.
McDowell admits she was a little unsure about the placement the first couple of weeks when her fieldwork assignments consisted mostly of creating documents the organization could use for their clients, some of which were safety plans for home evacuations in case of a fire or other emergencies.
Then they used those documents to help create an evacuation plan for the client with cerebral palsy. “She was not able to evacuate properly, so we were able to go in and find the appropriate way to evacuate and get out of the home because I’d sat down and done that on paper first,” McDowell said. “That was a huge help.”
“I like that it’s not a traditional setting like a clinic or outpatient, because it’s just being able to be involved in the community and see the participants come to life more,” Fox said. “We’ve seen some that completely come out of their shell and completely open up.”
“It’s amazing,” to see those results, McDowell said. “It’s super-rewarding.”
“I’ve been telling them from day one, don’t just look traditionally, look and see where you can apply the skills that you’ve learned to anything that’s interesting to you,” Smith said. As an example, she noted Fox previously completed Wallace State’s Culinary Arts program and worked as a chef. “She’s created a cooking group with the clients here,” Smith said. “A passion that she has, she’s able to take that and adapt it and use her skills here to have an impact on people.”
Three Wallace State students were assigned to The Link of Cullman County: Emma Wood-Wright, Heather Baker and Allison Graham. They’re participating in the program’s upcoming Kindergarten Readiness Camp, parenting and anger management classes, and created a group called Kids N’ Kin.
“It’s for children in foster care and their family,” Baker, of Horton, said of the Kids N’ Kin sessions. While the children’s parents are meeting with The Link staff, the Wallace State students help the children with things like handwriting skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills and more.
The students also created a YouTube channel for The Link (Linking Cullman to OT) that parents can view to create activities for their children, such as a chalk obstacle course and an eye/hand/foot coordination activity. Each work on gross motor skills and can help hyperactive children expend energy.
They’ve helped clients, or neighbors as they’re called at The Link, with their resumes and some job skills training. They’ve also created sensory bottles and boxes.
“We like to provide sensory stimulation for kids and this is calming for them,” said Graham, of Crossville, as she held a sensory bottle that included a mixture of colored water and glitter.
"And we had laminated targets,” added Wood-Wright, of San Rafael, Calif., squirting water from a plastic water pistol. “This is hand strengthening for hand-writing,” she explained.
Their most recent project is building a security fence surrounding play equipment for parents and children to use during supervised visits rather than having those visits take place in an office inside. When supervised visits can go on for months if not years, the chance to hold these visits outside is beneficial to all, said Carrie Woods, a 2019 graduate of the Wallace State OTA program and a staff member at The Link.
“To be able to add that normalcy for them, to interact with their child in a normal environment, to grow and build those attachments with them and for a child to be able swing and slide and do all those developmental things they need to do,” is important, Wood said.
“They have gone above and beyond with the projects,” Smith said of her students. “All of the things they’ve done here they can put on their resume and make them stand out to an employer.”
“They have brought new perspectives, new ideas, new material for us to weave into our programs, so we’re very grateful,” said Woods.
“They are amazing,” added Julie Hall, The Link’s Director of Neighbor Relations.
At Hope Horses, where clients use therapeutic riding to help as they navigate physical, cognitive or social disabilities, students Kaitlin Kelley and Hali Garcia-Peralta have helped to create new activities they can use in their therapy.
Kelsey Scott, the executive director at Hope Horses said having the students there has been extremely helpful.
They’ve made updates on the sensory trail, a path that clients ride with stations that teach them a variety of skills while on horseback. "It allows the clients to get different feedback from the horse, going up and down hills and the bright colors on the trail gives them visual feedback,” said Kelley, of Hayden. It helps them develop balance and fine and gross motor skills.
The activity boards include different types of locks they can operate, games to recognize numbers and colors while developing hand/eye coordination and more. An auditory board includes pots, pans, wind chimes and other items clients can create sounds with.
Kelley and her father even created a 3-D tic-tac-toe board the clients can play from horseback, using balls to drop from their position atop the horse into the squares. Other games were added or modified based on specific interests or goals of the clients.
“They have been a huge blessing for us,” Scott said of the students. With the help of the OTA students, they’ve learned ways to help break down lessons to help their clients reach their goals. “They have definitely opened a whole other avenue for us to see things differently and been able to help us, this session in particular, to take our students to a new level,” Scott said.
Madison McElroy and Hannah Black were assigned to Youth Advocate Program, working with children within the Department of Human Resources and Juvenile Probation offices of Cullman County.
“Basically, they work with at-risk kids who may have a potential to get in trouble and so they’re trying to have a positive impact on these kids to help them to learn to be positive members of society,” Smith said.
The students were assigned as advocates to children referred to the program providing them with activities to help meet the goals of the program. Pre-COVID, they would do things like volunteer at the animal shelter or other community service projects. With limitations due to the pandemic, they have used their OTA skills to provide alternate activities.
“I’ve been doing groups with kids who have gone through a lot in their life, so we work on stress-related tasks, what they can do to help relieve either stress or how to deal with stressful situations,” said McElory of Springville. “That’s really helping them a lot. They said that they can tell a difference with the kids I’m working with.”
“It’s opened my eyes to a lot,” said Black, of Arab. “The juvenile probation kids I’ve worked with, their home life is the reason they act the way they act. Anger management wise, we can give them ideas and things to do, like just walk away from a situation or find a friend to lean on.”
“We also incorporate activities that can lead to good conversations, let them know that they’re not alone during that hard time,” McElory said. “We work on anger issues, self-esteem, home life, behavioral issues, etc.”
After completing shorter one-week previous fieldwork in the more traditional setting of a nursing home, McElroy said she now has insight into two different aspects of occupational therapy, which is something Smith said can benefit all of her students who’ve been placed in these emerging practice sites.
“You can see how if you have a challenging patient maybe in the future, you’ll know some skills you can apply even in a traditional setting,” Smith said. “Sometimes you have patients who don’t follow through with a program you’ve set up for them — an exercise program or a calming program. Now you can kind of see that there are psycho-social behind the scene that maybe you didn't even know were happening.
“It’s been a very challenging setting,” Smith added, referring to the Youth Advocate Program, in particular. "But it is, I think, a setting that will them give skills — you may not even realize all the skills y’all have learned until you leave here.”
McElroy agreed. “Any game we play, say we’re in a group and we’re playing UNO…we’re working on fine motor skills, visual scanning, turn-taking, following the rules,” she said. “There’s occupational therapy in pretty much everything you do in life.”
Wallace State’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program is a two-year associate degree program, with two semesters of prerequisite courses to be completed before applying to the program and entering in the fall semester. Applications are accepted annually between March 1 and June 1.
Registration is currently underway for Fall 2020 classes that will begin on Aug. 17. Classes are offered during the regular term, two mini terms and two Flex Start terms. Call 256-352-8000 or visit www.wallacestate.edu for more information.