Occupational Therapy Students Lend a Helping Hand

Last Updated on January 28, 2016 at 11:00 AM

Originally published January 28, 2016

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

When she broke her leg in three places, Lola Jauregui needed more than just physical rehabilitation – she needed a new way of thinking.

Occupational Therapy students volunteer at the Rescue Mission of El Paso. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

Jauregui, a resident at the Rescue Mission of El Paso, had pins inserted in her knee, ankle and foot to secure a brace that kept her leg completely still, and was getting therapy once a week at a local hospital. She needed help getting in and out of bed, bathing and managing her pain so she could continue with her daily activities.

But, one of the things she really needed was a way of dealing with the stress, which is where graduate students in the Occupational Therapy Program at The University of Texas at El Paso stepped in to help.

“The exercises that we do are on the mind,” Jauregui said about the meditation techniques she learned from the student volunteers who also were able to get her a shower chair. “The meditation helps me to relax and relieve stress, which I have a lot of.”

Since September 2015, occupational therapy students in UTEP’s Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA) have been volunteering at the Rescue Mission of El Paso, where they’ve applied the skills they have learned in the classroom to make a real difference in the community.

“We felt like we really needed to make a connection with the El Paso community,” said Tori Martyn, a second-year student in the Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) program and president of SOTA. “We really just wanted to find a place to volunteer that was long-term and something meaningful.”

SOTA members promote occupational therapy through their involvement with the community at the University, local and state levels. They participate in community service, health fairs, fundraising, cooperative activities, and social and educational activities that enhance the learning and professional experience of occupational therapy students.

On April 9, 2016, SOTA members will be recognized with the AOTA Outstanding Student Advocate Award from the American Occupational Therapy Association for their outstanding commitment to community service at the association’s 2016 Annual Conference and Expo in Chicago, Illinois.

Since last summer, the future occupational therapists have forged vital connections with residents at the Rescue Mission and at the YWCA’s Transitional Living Center.

“It’s awesome,” Jauregui said. “They help a lot because you get to talk to somebody. They ask me how my day is going and I share with them. I used to be the kind of person who wouldn’t talk or share, and talking about what I’m going through really helps.”

Occupational therapists help people who have an injury, illness or disability to fully engage in activities that are meaningful to them, from their work and recreation to everyday activities like getting dressed, cooking, eating and driving. They also are trained to work with people with a mental illness or emotional problems such as depression and stress.

“(Occupational therapists) can address any area (of people’s lives) that they are really struggling with,” explained Martyn, a 2014 graduate from UTEP’s undergraduate kinesiology program. “A lot of times it has to do with coping; it has to do with strategies they can use on a daily basis so that they can function more appropriately.”

At the Rescue Mission, volunteers tutor children twice a week; help residents with relaxation techniques; coordinate life skills classes for parents, resume workshops and mock interviews; and volunteer in the medical wing.

Volunteers even taught a healthy two-year-old girl to walk. The little girl spent most of the time in her stroller and hadn’t learned to walk yet. For two months, one of the student volunteers ran around the room with her for one hour.

“That’s all that we would do for her and that’s what she needed,” Martyn said. “And now she’s starting to walk. Actually she’s running. She’s pretty unstable, but it’s getting a lot better.”

At the Transitional Living Center (TLC), a homeless shelter for women and children, students organized stress relief classes and a resume workshop.

“We want to teach them first to become aware (of stress triggers), then use a strategy to try and cope with it and hopefully that will help in their participation in activities,” Martyn said.

The students use various strategies to help the center residents.

“A lot of the women at the center struggle with finding a job, so we helped with classes for GED, resume workshops, a customer service class, any type of vocational activity,” Martyn said. “We helped by just teaching them skills that they can put on their resume and apply for a greater variety of jobs.”

In August 2015, the MOT students hosted a back-to-school fair and fitted 60 children with new backpacks full of school supplies. While children played soccer with the UTEP women’s soccer team, their parents collected information about proper nutrition and educational materials.

“Our participants were able to be prepared and confident about sending their children into the 2015-16 school year,” recalled Sierra K. Ulibarri, TLC youth advocate. “Now that we are in the (new school) semester, the TLC has been able to not only replenish supplies, but also to provide supplies to our incoming families. We hope that the students will realize what an asset UTEP is to the community.”

The back-to-school fair was a service learning project that Martyn organized for the class Concepts and Foundations of Community Engagement, which is part of the occupational therapy master’s program curriculum.

While occupational therapists are mostly in hospitals, schools or outpatient clinics, the class allowed Martyn to explore career possibilities in a nontraditional setting, like the TLC, where there is traditionally no occupational therapist on site.

“We can really be in any setting because occupational therapy is about getting people back to functioning and doing everyday activities,” said Martyn, who expects to earn her master’s degree in December 2016. “It was really neat to go out into the community to make these connections.”

Stephanie Capshaw, OTD, a clinical associate professor who taught the class, said service learning opportunities enhance the learning experience for MOT students by allowing them to connect what is learned in the classroom to the real world.

She added that service learning also has the additional benefit of promoting health, well-being and social and occupational justice in the community, while facilitating the development of civic-mindedness in students.

“Our immediate community in the El Paso region offers a rich learning lab for students not only to apply skills learned, but also to learn new skills and to contribute to reducing existing social injustices and what the profession terms, ‘occupational injustice,’” said Capshaw, MOT program graduate advisor and a registered occupational therapist.