For and With Others: Return to In-person Service Learning

As a physical therapy program at a Jesuit university, the Regis DPT program is built on the foundation of serving others; it is one of our core values. When COVID-19 first emerged in our community, we were deeply saddened to not be able to serve in the way that we have in the past. Unfortunately, many of the partners that Regis serves, have immunocompromised members that were struck very hard at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was extremely risky to work with these populations, thus in-person service learning was put on hold. There was a period of time when only virtual service learning was allowed, and as a program, we did our best to adapt to the unknown and ongoing changes.

With the influx of a new class of students, and dwindling cases of COVID-19, Regis University’s DPT program was once again able to find ways to serve the community. More and more non-profit organizations started to welcome back volunteers, and we were excited to have the opportunity to participate in this meaningful work. 

During the fall semester of 2021, all of the members in the class of 2024 participated with the 9Health Fairs in the Denver metro area. This was extremely impactful for the community as we provided health screenings that individuals in the community may not have had access to otherwise. During the spring semester of 2022, the individuals in the class of 2024 were able to select from a number of service learning experiences to determine which opportunity they wanted to partake in.

Service learning is threaded into the curriculum in order to create compassionate and thoughtful practitioners, and we are so grateful to have been given the opportunity to begin serving our community once again. We have compiled a few stories from members of our Regis DPT Class of 2024 to explain what service learning means to them.

Sarah Holtsclaw – 1st Year SPT

I worked with children at the Anchor Center, which serves blind and visually impaired children. At the Anchor Center I was serving as a supervising play pal to provide one-on-one support and connection with a paired child during a respite night. The respite night occurs on Friday evenings and supports the families of the students by providing a night watch program for their children. During my second respite night with Anchor, I was paired with a one and a half year old who had experienced a TBI and cortical vision impairment and was given the opportunity to provide them this support, which was lots of fun and very rewarding.

I chose to participate with this group because I had never worked with blind or visually impaired children before and I knew it would be an extremely valuable experience for me and the children. I had heard about the Anchor Center on the news and was excited to see that volunteering there was an option for our service learning this spring, and I knew I had to get involved in some way; this was the perfect opportunity to do just that. Also, I would like to work in pediatrics in my future as a therapist, so I thought it would be beneficial to gain experience with this group of children and gain knowledge on what the PTs do within this organization.

Not only do I feel like I gained so much from this experience by getting to work with blind and visually impaired children, I was also able to help support families by giving them a night for themselves. It was also a great opportunity to learn so much information about blindness and visual impairments, specifically cortical blindness. The staff were very open to discussing the components of different types of blindness so that we could all become more educated on it. I learned that blindness is so much more than the inability to see. The Anchor Center is an incredible facility that provides so much to these children and their families, and I’m filled with admiration and optimism following my experience with them. 

Our first event was actually rescheduled due to COVID. There were already a lot of safety protocols in place at the Anchor Center but with COVID, things were more strict, especially because a lot of the children are immunocompromised. For example, we always had to wear a mask and make sure to clean up thoroughly after the kids.

I’ve always tried to do my best to give back to the community around me, so being able to volunteer at the Anchor Center in-person for service learning was very special for me. It feels so rewarding to be able to support these children and their families and I want to express my gratitude to their families for granting me the opportunity to support their children during the respite night. I had such a great experience with Anchor and I hope to volunteer with them in my future!

Jennika Chapman – 1st Year SPT

For my service learning, I was at Colorado Easterseals Neuro Rehabilitation day program. This program provides physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, psychological therapy, music therapy, and art therapy for individuals who have suffered from neurological injuries. During my time there, all of the individuals in the program were recovering from strokes. My role varied based on the day, but generally I provided support for the workers by checking individuals in for the day, helping prepare lunches, or helping individuals with their therapeutic exercises. The flexibility of my role really allowed me to get to know the individuals involved in this program which was a remarkable experience.

I chose this service learning because neuro rehab is an area of physical therapy that I have not had much opportunity to observe, but also an area that I could see myself getting into following graduation.

This semester has been challenging and at times when we feel bombarded by assignments and exams, it is easy to forget why we are doing this. This service learning continually allowed me to remember why I chose this profession. The easterseals community was unlike anything I have ever experienced, the way they all support each other is truly inspiring. The participants are so thankful to have the opportunity to come to Easterseals to receive the care they need.

This organization has been extremely impacted by covid. The participants are an at-risk population. Luckily, the neuro rehab organization did not have any outbreaks. But they did close down the site to all non-essential personnel. We were the first volunteers allowed back. Before each shift we had a COVID health screening and we had to wear an N95 or KN95 whenever we were at the site.

Being able to be back in the community is such a valuable learning experience but it means so much more to me. I grew up in the Denver-metro area; this area shaped me into the individual that I am today. It is the reason why I am entering the healthcare profession. So being able to engage with the community each semester is almost like a mental reset for me to remember why I want to be a physical therapist.

Kaitlyn Villars – 1st Year SPT

I worked with Denver Adaptive Rec and Special Olympics as a volunteer coach for two basketball teams. I went to weekly practices during the season where we helped guide drills and filled into scrimmages when an extra player was needed. The season wrapped up with a state tournament which was an incredible event for the players. They got to show everyone what they had been working on all season and play in actual games. On top of that, we won 1st place at state!

I have always had a passion for coaching and sports and it had been years since I have been in a position to coach so I felt like it was the perfect opportunity. I also didn’t have much experience working with people who have varying intellectual disabilities so I knew it would be outside of my initial comfort zone and a great experience. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent volunteering with this program. It was meaningful to me to get out into the Denver community and be a part of something bigger than school. PT school can be tough at times and it helps to get out and do something different while feeling like you are making a positive impact on someone else’s life. Even if it is just being there to have a great time playing basketball. After this experience I plan to continue volunteering with Special Olympics in their upcoming sports seasons.    

Because of Covid, the participants didn’t play in any real games against other teams until the state tournament at the end of their season. Halfway through their season instead of a tournament they had a skills competition. Masks were required at first and then the protocols loosened up by the last week;  if the players were on the court, they no longer needed to wear a mask while playing. Everything during Covid was put on pause so it really has been years since I’ve been able to engage as a volunteer within the community. It is great to see everything opening back up and organizations getting back to normal again. I had such a positive experience that I was sad to see it end. It really sparked back up my interest in coaching and working with Special Olympics as well as working within the community again.

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