Occupational Therapy fieldwork takes students behind bars

RU OT students while doing fieldwork at the Bland Correctional Center
Flanking Radford Occupational Therapy graduate students Emily Kingrey and Sarra Cottle, who are doing their fieldwork in a unique environment - a prison - are the Virginia DOC's Tim Williams and OT Assistant Professor Sarah Smidl.

For field experience, graduate occupational therapy students fan out into the community to sharpen their skills and help others. 

For the last two years, seven OT students have earned Level One field experience at the Bland County Correctional Center, working with offenders preparing for reentry into society. 

“The core of occupational therapy is to help people live meaningful lives,” said Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy Sarah Smidl, who laid the groundwork for the distinctive field site and supervises the students. “OT clients come from any number of conditions. Offenders are one group who want to replace old behaviors with new interests, activities and skills. As practitioners, we can bolster a vulnerable group.”

Occupational therapy is a science-driven, evidence-based profession that enables people of all ages to live life to its fullest by helping promote health and recovery from illness, injury or disability. After passage of the national certification examination, Radford’s graduates are licensed and may practice in hospitals, day care facilities, nursing homes, schools, community centers, workplaces, private practice or a client's home.

Smidl and her students have worked with the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) staff and the offenders themselves to develop programming of value to the men who are looking to return to their communities. The classes and workshops, taught by Radford graduate students, take place in the facility with a population of 600 and a working farm that provides dairy products to other DOC facilities. Smidl and the students also work with the offenders individually.

“It has all been positive. The offenders appreciate the chance to help the students earn their degrees as well as the chance to prepare themselves to go back to their communities,” said Tim Williams, who facilitates the offender workforce development initiatives and re-entry programs at the center.

Williams said the optional program, which Smidl began developing in 2014, complements DOC’s existing mandated programs. The Bland County/Radford University OT collaboration is the only OT program in a DOC facility. The program is a result of Smidl’s quest for additional ways to expand both the practice of OT and opportunities for its aspiring practitioners.

“We were skeptical at first, but it has developed into a uniquely positive partnership,” Williams said. “It is nice to have a university willing to explore opportunities to cooperate.”

The focus is on everyday real skills needed to live an independent, satisfying life-a central tenet of OT.

“The program helps the guys find meaning while incarcerated. We have created programs about work, social and life skills,” Smidl said. “Like all of our clients, they want to be successful and we can help them build life skills, develop their confidence and strengthen their relationships.

As part of her graduate OT program, Allie Woodrum traveled to Bland weekly last spring to create and deliver workshops on resume building, assertive communication, moral and ethical dilemmas, among others.

“As OT practitioners, we focus on everyone’s potential and how we can help them get where they want to be,” Woodrum said.
Her clients have enriched her as well.

“Seeing their motivation to succeed after re-entry has helped me look past my own adversities and hassles to focus on the future and what I can do to make it better,” she said.

Melissa Beckler, another second-year OT graduate student, has returned to Bland for a second time this summer. Each OT student must do three Level One field experiences and then two Level Two experiences of 12 weeks in the field. As she is bilingual from having grown up in Venezuela, Beckler is also teaching a Spanish class. 

“It has been important for me to learn to resist judging. I got to know them, learned their needs and learned what I can do to help them succeed in their return to their communities,” Beckler said.

Beckler reflected on the vital connection between client and OT practitioner.

“In many ways, they have lost their belief in themselves,” Beckler said. “I think they appreciated us as someone who would see and talk to them as a person.”

Jul 26, 2016