Occupational Therapy Graduates are Ready to Serve

May 3, 2024

Sawyer, a 5-year-old adventure-seeker, was an enthusiastic participant in his weekly sessions with Eastern students at EWU’s Mock Pediatric Clinic, held inside Joya Child and Family Development’s state-of-the-art clinic.

From rocking the sensory swing to busting out dance moves with his therapists, Sawyer embraced new therapy experiences with laughter and smiles.

For Sawyer, who has Down syndrome, time spent with EWU’s second-year, master of occupational therapy students wasn’t just fun: it helped to advance crucial speech and motor skills that he will use in kindergarten and in everyday life.

Heather Werre, Sawyer’s mom, says he currently receives therapy from a local pediatric provider. But she credits his Eastern OT team with bringing fresh ideas and approaches that helped him reach new milestones.

“He’s made huge progress in the past five weeks. He’s taking off his shoes now and pulling his pants down now, which I feel is like a double-edged sword,” Werre says with a laugh, adding that Sawyer is “cool kid” who is “curious and can get into a bit of trouble.”

Future OTs Mina Chandler and Solae Swenson, both 23, use Sawyer's love of music and dancing to help the 5-year-old develop motor skills.
Future OTs Mina Chandler and Solae Swenson, both 23, use Sawyer’s love of music and dancing to help the 5-year-old develop motor skills.

The mock clinic prepares Eastern’s occupational therapy students for their careers — and the option of specializing in pediatrics — while also providing service to the community. The EWU students work in groups of two, applying skills they’ve learned in the classroom to perform initial evaluations, create an intervention plan and then conduct five weekly intervention therapy sessions. Services are provided free of charge.

The clinic, which wrapped up on April 26, was one of the last educational pieces for the cohort of 32 students, who graduated during the May 3 commencement, held at the Pavilion (also known as Reese Court). EWU’s newly minted occupational therapists will take on careers that make a difference for children and adults with special needs, injuries, and debilitating medical conditions.

For Solae Swenson, 23, working with Sawyer helped her learn skills for engaging young children in therapy sessions, while also confirming her plan to practice in pediatrics. “He is such a joy, such a bright, outgoing personality,” Swenson says. “I will take every bit of knowledge from this into my future profession.”

Lucretia Berg, associate professor and chair of occupational therapy, says she and her team are “so proud of the students.”

Since the mock clinic’s inception six years ago, Berg says that Eastern OT students have prepared for their careers while treating nearly 100 children living with a number of physical and mental challenges, among them cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities and delays. The therapy sessions address physical, sensory, and cognitive deficits, helping children develop skills that support independence and success.

“It is a great experience for both the clients and the students. We learn from each other and are so grateful to the families and clients,” Berg says.

The clinic, previously held at Catalyst, now happens inside Joya’s kid-friendly pediatric therapy center. Joya, a nonprofit serving children in Spokane County, provides occupational, physical and speech therapy together with special education services.

Berg says working with children in a true clinic setting makes a difference, adding, “Joya has been wonderful to partner with—we are so appreciative of this opportunity to use their space for the mock clinic.”

Felicia Reilly, lead occupational therapist at Joya, has helped with the mock clinic for three years and was instrumental in opening the door, in Spring 2023, for students to work with children inside Joya’s new building.

Nick Modas, a 34-year-old veteran from Illinois who served at Fairchild Air Force Base, discovered that toy dinosaurs and Play-Doh worked wonders in convincing a 4-year-old to engage in activities that help to hone fine motor skills.

“It’s cool how the simplicity of play can help with everyday living activities,” says Modas who plans to specialize in pediatrics. “Just seeing the growth we’ve seen in the short amount of time we’ve had with him is pretty remarkable.”

Sarah Perez’s 2-year-old daughter, Elliott, who has Down syndrome, came to the clinic in addition to receiving services at Joya.

It’s helpful to have a variety of perspectives from the OT community, says Perez, adding, “Every little thing helps move her forward, because the goal is just continued development.”

Elliott, age 2, reaches for a toy during her therapy session with Sara Ash, 42, pictured in the red, and Melanie Garduno, 30.
Elliott, age 2, has fun during her therapy session with Sara Ash, 42, pictured in the red, and Melanie Garduno, 30.

For Perez’s 8-year-old son, Elias, who has some sensory processing and behavioral challenges, the mock clinic helped to fill a service gap.

“When this opportunity came up, we kind of jumped on it because it’s hard to find an [occupational] therapist and there is a long wait time,” says Perez.

Elias has made strides in multiple areas, says Perez, who appreciates the students and Dr. Berg. “It has been a great opportunity for our family.”

Reilly, who earned her Master of Occupational Therapy degree from EWU in 2012, says parents love the clinic because their children, as patients, are not only gaining important skills but also helping to educate a new-generation of therapists.

The clinic provides unique hands-on experience that prepares students for the overall profession of OT, she says, while also opening their minds to specializing in pediatrics. Students witness the children developing skills and it makes an impact, says Reilly. “It’s only 6 weeks, but they really make progress.”

Reilly knows of at least three recent EWU OT graduates practicing in pediatric clinics throughout Spokane – including one she hired for Joya.

“They work in town, in pediatric clinics in Spokane, which is what we want,” she says.

Photo of occupational therapy students who worked with children at the mock clinic at Joya.
Occupational therapy students worked in groups for two sessions of pediatric therapy for the mock clinic at Joya Child and Family Development.