Building independence

Community partnership provides experiential learning experiences

by Michele Berhorst  • September 16, 2021

The GHSP build team with Powell (center).

Experiential learning is an essential component of our curriculum; our community partners play a key role in providing these experiences to our students. Relationships with local organizations are formed in various ways, such as when a former employee connects back to the Program in Occupational Therapy with opportunities to promote community health and meaningful participation.

That is what happened five years ago when former fieldwork coordinator and alumna Beth Daniels, MSOT, assisted Darryl Stanfield in establishing Gateway Housing Service Project (GHSP), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. GHSP’s mission is to help people in the community have adequate and accessible housing and live in homes without barriers. They work with fire departments, rehabilitation facilities and other agencies to identify and prioritize families or individuals in immediate need of ramps, grab bars and other minor, but vital, home modifications. Because of the funding they receive, GHSP provides these services free of charge to the community.

“As soon as we were set up as a 501(c)(3),  Darryl and I presented to Washington University Occupational Therapy’s clinical practice to start taking referrals,” Daniels recalls. “Sue Tucker, OTD, OTR/L, ATP,  and Jessica Dashner, OTD, OTR/L, who both focus on community mobility, saw the volunteer opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience modifying homes and building ramps.”

On June 6, three students – Brittney Nethercott, Megan Kaesler and Meagan Proffit – volunteered with GHSP to build a ramp for former St. Louis boxing champion Boris Powell. He is currently fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Tucker made the referral for Powell because of the difficulty he was having traveling from his front door to the street in his walker even with support of family and friends.

“Mr. Powell’s front porch is only a 3-by-3-foot area for him to transfer to a ramp with no way to modify it. The students had many questions about how to design such a ramp, the ratio needed for ADA compliance and permits so they could understand the process,” Stanfield explains. “We ended up making the landing for the ramp 5-by-5 feet so that Mr. Powell could more easily maneuver out the door and down the ramp to exit his house.”

Shortly after the crew arrived, Powell had to leave his home. Students saw first-hand the challenges he faced. Powell spent time with the crew and thanked each one personally before he left. “His resilience and tenacity really struck me. Mr. Powell expressed to me how he would ‘keep on fighting, no matter what,’” Kaesler shares. “Meeting him made the ramp build more meaningful since there was a connection with the person concerned.”

“Seeing his intense work to walk out of his home over a grassy, slick slope to the car before we started our build that day made the concepts of mobility and independence more real to me. It made me even more excited to give him and his family the benefits of a ramp,” adds Proffit.

“Experiences like this are so valuable for our students,” Dashner adds. “The students are able to build upon information they learn in the classroom setting and apply it to individuals living their lives in the community.” The collaboration with GHSP provides an opportunity for in-context learning and insights into some of the barriers that can be created by policies and lack of funding for modifications in the home. “We are so thankful to partner with such an amazing organization offering services that truly change and improve people’s lives.”

Proffit had previous construction experience she learned from her father during a home remodel and helped lead the other volunteers throughout the day. It took all day to complete, but the crew felt an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment knowing how the ramp would increase Powell’s mobility and independence moving forward.

“I learned about the various things that need to be taken into consideration in addition to building the ramp itself, such as considering how a disease might progress and building in a way that still makes their house accessible for the individual in the future,” Nethercott says. “Talking with Mr. Powell and his family was very rewarding. I saw how making someone’s house accessible can impact and change their life.”

“It feels good to know that this ramp will help give Mr. Powell a greater ‘fighting chance’ in being more independent in his life,” adds Kaesler.

Seeing the impact such builds have on students adds another layer to GHSP’s mission for Daniels and Stanfield. “We share occupational therapy’s vision of living life to the fullest. Keeping people independent in the community is vital to achieving that. Having an accessible ramp can be the difference between someone going home or having to stay in a care facility. It also gives students the opportunity to look at other barriers in the home that aren’t always easy to fix and how they can modify and adapt the environment to support the individual,” Daniels says.

“We look forward to exploring other ways of working with students so that, together, we can help more people in our community and provide more educational experiences for future occupational therapists,” Stanfield says.


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