Summer Student - JoAnna V. - OT must go on! Even in a pandemic!
Updated: Jan 4
In a matter of weeks, my view on OT shifted dramatically as I began my experience at Sundance Therapy. I began with unknown expectations and ended with immense gratitude for the opportunity and bittersweet sadness upon leaving. My experience started with my introduction to Jeff and Desi, whom were so personal and genuine in how they connected with me; coming from the East Coast, their genuine and sincere efforts to welcome me was astounding and so appreciated. I immediately began learning about animals, the land they were raised on, and of course, occupational therapy. While fieldwork tends to ramp up pretty quickly, Jeff always made sure to check in on me and ask, “How are you doing?” or “How is your day going?” probably about 5 times a day. While this was not my first placement, I knew this nicety was not typical and found that such consideration alleviated much anxiety and stress which is otherwise typical due to constant evaluation.
The first week flew by as I learned standard farm tasks such as how to approach a horse, or how to open the workshop door (every door has its own trick), but I also learned how to interact with clients and more importantly how to interact with them in this setting. The first week also provided the opportunity to meet various COTAs who were staff members of Sundance Therapy. I was given the opportunity to see the same activities done from the perspective of multiple therapists (amazing!!). As the weeks passed, I grew more comfortable. I began to look forward to the drives to Castle Rock to pick up pig food, I loved listening to and learning from Jeff and was able to hear his philosophy on pretty much everything and anything. It’s rare to find a place where the people have a clear vision and actually work towards their goals every day with everything they do.
One word that stood out to me early on and guided my experience is the word purpose; purpose was demonstrated through every task, chore, action, and conversation, and was intentional with every sense of the word. Everything had a purpose. It started simple, the eggs were placed in the carton narrow side down to allow for easier handling, the garden fence was high to keep the deer out, and the grass was long to allow for an all-encompassing sensory experience for everyone (and of course for animals to snack on). The chicken tractors were moved every day to allow for new grass and ground for the chickens, in turn, the chickens fertilized the soil and ate the harmful bugs from the grass, each benefitting the other. The horses were on a rotational grazing schedule to allow for optimal grass levels to ensure that the land was well taken care of and in turn to make sure there was always grass for the horses. The more time I spent at Sundance Therapy the more I realized that purpose wasn’t just for the obvious things. Maybe these things are normal, maybe it’s not uncommon for people to be so intentional with the things that they do, but I’ve never seen anything like it. It was so exciting and new to me, to not only find a place that cares immensely about the people who pass through but also about the land around them and the animals they encountered.
Let’s talk about OT for a little bit, the actual reason I ended up here. Upon arriving I was a burnt-out graduate student just looking to check fieldwork off my ‘to-do’ list. This was the last hope of truly finding my ‘niche’ in the field of occupational therapy. Boy did I find it. I saw individuals treated for the same reasons I’ve seen them treated for in a clinic, however, in this environment the activities were much more dynamic and PURPOSEFUL. That is, after all, the foundation of occupational therapy; goal achievement through purposeful activities. Instead of stringing beads for bilateral fine motor activities, we fed pigs, we opened packages, used can openers, cracked eggs, fed chickens, and unwrapped cupcakes (talk about functional!). Gross motor skills were tackled by rock climbing, chasing goats, and climbing into animal enclosures. Everything was so motivating, fun, and purposeful. Not to say that traditional pediatric OT settings aren’t great, because they are, and they are so important, but there is something to be said about nature-based, animal-assisted activities, which is what I was able to observe over the last 12 weeks.
Jeff told me multiple times throughout my experience, “it isn’t for everyone”, therapist and client alike. Buy-in is important, from all parties. A therapist would be doing a disservice to their clients if they weren’t passionate, and a client who didn’t feel any meaning in the activities they were participating in wouldn’t be optimizing therapy. But the families that came out loved it, and that isn’t random. The reasons they loved it aren’t hard to figure out either, IT WORKS. Each family impacted me in a different way, they were all so unique, and yet all shared this special place in common. It brought people together from all walks of life. Here, everyone was welcome and actually felt welcomed (which is huge). It wasn’t uncommon for a neighbor to walk up the driveway with a bag of food for the pigs, with an animal who managed to escape, fresh baked goods, or a beer in both hands, all of these people were welcomed the same way I was, with a smile.
Working hard was a prerequisite for this fieldwork experience, however, Jeff allowed a balance from working long days to taking afternoons off or carving out the time in our schedule to just relax and do something fun like working with the horses, going on a trail ride, or enjoying a meal with Desi. Just as I was writing this Jeff sat beside me and told me the importance of balancing work and relaxation, with tired eyes he said, “I just want to take a nap”, and with that, the day was over. Transparency is something else I’ve learned to appreciate here. “What you see is what you get”, is a line Jeff says quite often, he’s right though. We’ve had many conversations about how sometimes living a life that is different from the “norm” can feel uncomfortable or downright wrong at times, that is why transparency and confidence in what you are doing are so important to carry with you throughout life. I realized early on in my fieldwork that I was probably going to learn a lot more about life and myself than I ever expected.
As a student in this environment, I couldn’t have gotten luckier. I was surrounded by loving and supporting people who truly wanted to see me succeed. I not only was taught, but I learned from example and then by trying things out for myself (experiential learning) which is the most beneficial, in my opinion. Jeff would carve time out of his day, OFTEN to “check-in” to make sure I was okay and to tie up any loose ends. I have thoroughly enjoyed and looked forward to every “10-minute” conversation with Jeff which easily turned into several hours with topics ranging from intervention techniques to why people do the things that they do. The passion that Jeff and Desi portray into everything they do is remarkable and downright contagious.
The number of things I learned over 12 weeks is amazing. I’ll always look fondly on my favorite evenings which consisted of working in the garden with Desi, talking with Jeff over nighttime chores, and helping with chicken first aid. The tasks themselves weren’t the most glamorous, but the company was. Between Jeff and Desi, and the other supervising COTA’s I was constantly supported and encouraged. I’ll miss every moment I was able to spend here, but I leave with a grateful heart. With that being said, this opportunity allowed me to find myself as a person and a therapist, as well as discover my true passion and direction as I enter the field as an OT practitioner.