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Helping Hands

Written by Amanda Schlenker

Amanda Schlenker B.S. 08, M.S. 09 works with a client.

On a crisp fall morning, I climb out of my car and make my way to the trunk, where I carefully select a bagful of toys. Into a large canvas tote I throw Play-Doh, shape sorters, textured balls, crayons, colorful blocks, and Magna Doodles. I need some larger equipment, too: a tunnel, a peanut s-shaped exercise ball, and a dizzy disc. Once my selection is complete. I work my way to the front door of my first family's house.

I'll go through this routine at least four more times today, selecting the appropriate toys and equipment for a 45-minute treatment session with the goal of helping a young child. This is my life now. I am an occupational therapist and a graduate of Ithaca College. Unlike so many of my fellow college freshmen, I took my seat the very first day of class knowing exactly what I was going to do. In five years, I was going to walk off this campus with a master's degree in occupational therapy. I did just that and so much more.

At Ithaca College, I found myself in an academic environment that both challenged and excited me. I bounced from biostatistics to a course in arts and crafts for people with physical and cognitive disabilities to an intense summer of anatomy during which I dissected a human cadaver, and then back to courses on early childhood development and play. I even spent my graduate year trying to predict happiness for my master's thesis. Not only was I able to prove my hypothesis, but with the help of my adviser, Carole Dennis, I also went on to present my research at the 2010 World Occupational Therapy Congress in Santiago, Chile.

Ithaca provided some other distinctive opportunities outside of the OT program. Beginning in my sophomore year, I served as a resident assistant (RA) for a floor of women, most of whom were first-year students. Working in residential life allowed me to connect to students in a way that no other job would have allowed. Each year, I had to build a community and a home for dozens of students. I took on the roles of counselor, group leader teacher, peer, rule enforcer, substitute parent, nurse, and friend. My time as an RA strengthened my communication skills, provided extensive experience in working as part of a team, and gave me confidence as a leader who could make a positive difference in the lives of others. All of these skills have carried over to my job as an occupational therapist.

Occupational therapy takes every aspect of a person into account. I had to learn the internal and external processes. I need to understand what motivates people and how to target the areas that matter the most to their overall well-being. To help me understand what's most important for a person's health and well-being, I joined a group of students for a two-week curse in the Dominican Republic the summer before my senior year. While traveling across the country, I had the opportunity to interact with children from a culture and background different from my own. Although my Spanish was limited then, I learned that communicated is so much more than speaking the same language.

Upon graduating, I started working as a pediatric occupational therapist in Boston. I spent my days driving from home to urban home, providing therapy for young children with developmental delays. I was the only occupational therapist who had any experience speaking Spanish, so naturally all of our Spanish-speaking referrals came straight to me! My Spanish has certainly improved with all the practice, but the experiences I had at IC gave me the confidence to enter a home, regardless of language or culture, connect with a family, establish rapport and trust, and teach them techniques and strategies that would improve the lives of their children.

Eventually, the call of Ithaca's gorges beckoned me to return. I now work for Child's Play, an occupational therapy agency that works with children in Ithaca and the surrounding countries, founded by my former professor Meghan McNally. Here, many of the children I see have difficulties processing sensory input. This means that they aren't experiencing the world in the same way that other people do, and it can cause complications in their development. I help them by providing therapy in the form of play.

Sometimes children come to me at our clinic in Owego, New York, where we have climbing equipment, a giant pit filled with foam pillows, tunnels, and swings. They think we are there for a play date, but in the midst of our jumping, swinging, and singing, I am doing everything I can to stimulate their senses, improve their strength, and engage them socially. It is through fun that I am able to change the lives of these children every day. With a job like this, how can I do anything but smile as I load up my toy bag and make my way to the home of the next family?



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