By Cole Caviston, Staff Writer
Since Jan. 4, the Department of Occupational Therapy has worked with the New England Disabled Sports (NEDS) on a 12-week fieldwork student internship to help those with disabilities enjoy downhill slope sports.
The five student interns in the NEDS program earned their undergraduate degree from University of New Hampshire in spring of 2014 and will graduate from the master’s program this December.
Barbara Prudhomme White, an associate professor of occupational therapy in the College of Health and Human Services, says that the inaugural program, one of the required field internships in OT, is the first of its kind to engage in this type of career preparation and occupational work.
“We’ve taken a leisure occupation, snowboarding and skiing, and we’ve built a field world experience in the community around that,” White said. “That is different than what typical field placements look like.”
After collaborating with OT department alumna Rina Drake, White developed an adaptive sports program. Last summer, they worked with the manager and director of the NEDS program to set up a set of procedures for setting up a fieldwork experience.
For White, a volunteer at NEDS for the last 10 years, the collaboration provides an opportunity to provide adaptive sports and prepare its student interns for future job occupations.
“They were five brave students who stepped into a field work experience that will shape their educational experience, but they were very trusting that we would make sure they got an opportunity to learn that would make them prepared to sit for a national exam and also make them succeed in their first jobs,” White said.
The NEDS adaptive program has been in place at the Loon Mountain Ski Resort since 1987, but the Bretton Woods ski area merged with the program in 2012.
One of the requirements for entering the program was simple: knowing how to ski or snowboard and having enthusiasm for such winter sports.
“When you are skiing or riding in an adaptive program, your own ability can’t be in question, because you’re helping someone else get down the mountain,” White said.
Kailee Collins discovered the program through her fieldwork coordinator about a possible placement at a ski mountain. A skier since the sage of four, Collins felt that the position was perfect for her by combing her passion for snowboarding and occupational therapy.
“The experience has been amazing so far. Every day is different, even if I am with the same student multiple days in a row,” Collins said.
Intern Caitlin Hubbard hails from Lyman, New Hampshire, which is close to Loon Mountain. She has a friend who was been involved in the program for several years.
“When I found out about the opportunity to complete fieldwork at [NEDS], I was very interested and excited,” Hubbard said, “I had seen the positive impact that it had on my friend and wanted to help share that with others.”
Andrea Blodgett was drawn in by the opportunity to be a part of a unique experience.
“I decided I wanted to apply for a few reasons,” Blodgett said, “I love to ski, so that was a definite plus, but I have also been more interested in our of the box, less clinical settings for OT.”
For weekdays, work starts at 8:30 a.m. Lessons start at 9:30 a.m. and last until 11:30 a.m. After a lunch break, an afternoon lesson is held from 1-3 p.m.
“As coaches, we are able to help a student overcome the barriers they face and make skiing accessible, and then are able to pass these tips on to their parents,” Blodgett said.
According to Risa Le Pera, the other volunteers in the program come from a variety of backgrounds, professions and ages and different reasons for participating.
“At the end of the day, everyone is here to serve the same purpose-to help individuals break boundaries and have fun shredding,” Le Pera said.
What surprised Collins the most was the level of diversity among the students she taught of varying ages and different disabilities, from autism, Down syndrome and rare genetic disorders.
“I feel comfortable asking personal questions that need to be answered by the student or their guardian, and I know I would not have that ease if not for those skills learned,” Collins said.
Lindsay St. Cyr sees the day’s different situations, working with students with varying conditions, as a chance to build on her own skills.
“I am also forced to think on my feet on a daily basis, which is an incredible opportunity because it is a skill that will transfer to any practice setting,” St. Cyr said.
By the time their internship ends in later this month, each of the interns feel that they will have taken in much of the program, both in personal accomplishment and practical use of their skills.
“The most rewarding element of participating in this program has been helping to enable individuals to participate in new and meaningful occupation in a welcoming and open environment,” Hubbard said.
According to Le Pera, her own experiences have helped to develop her as an instructor.
“Each of these moments, whether they are nerve-wrecking or exciting, have helped make me a more confident coach and realize that this is a continuous learning process,” LePera said.
For St. Cyr, social interaction with participants was the most essential skill she put to use.
“You don’t realize that a lot of that skill is learned and not innate until you watch people that are not in the health field interact with students,” St. Cyr said. “There is a lot of miscommunication, misunderstanding and general lack of knowledge regarding disability culture.”