Community partnership: Lift for Life Academy

Engaging OT students in the community at a whole different level

by Michele Berhorst • September 22, 2022

Kara Wolters, OTD ’21 and students play a personal space-themed board game.


Lauren Milton, OTD, OTR/L, was searching for a way to make management coursework more experiential. A presentation at a teaching and learning conference by Brooke Flinders, DNP, RN, APRN-CNM, FACNM, a professor of nursing at Miami University in Ohio, inspired Milton and set her on a mission to engage occupational therapy (OT) students in the community at a whole different level.

“She had published a partnership model for service-learning programs that connected teaching, scholarship and service. It was highly influential to me as an educator, collaborating with other faculty members to attach management learning activities to what students were already doing out in the community,” Milton explains. “One of my former colleagues and I built a sustainable, centralized service-learning model to place students in one community setting where they could dig deep into the programming and services instead of going to multiple places for learning activities.”

Fast-forward to 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic led to complete cancelation of traditional Level I Fieldwork placements and significant loss of Level II placements. As Jessie Bricker, OTD, OTR/L, Academic Fieldwork Coordinator, actively sought non-traditional fieldwork opportunities with community partners who had lost volunteer support due to the pandemic, Milton and Bricker quickly realized there was an opportunity to meet the Program’s experiential learning needs while also supporting the work of vital community organizations. One of those organizations was Lift for Life Academy (LFLA), an independent charter school in St. Louis City that serves students in grades K-12. Before the pandemic, the school had dozens of volunteers each week to tutor, read to students and assist with programming. The restrictions and safety protocols took the volunteers and their support away. The school had a need, and Milton found the right partner to implement her model and build a deeper relationship with a community organization.

“It was a win-win opportunity, as we were able to place our fieldwork and capstone students there to work in a classroom setting with their elementary students to address occupational needs, provide enrichment and improve educational outcomes,” Milton says.

The Level II Fieldwork students conducted needs assessments with students and teachers to identify the environmental factors that impact the students’ abilities to learn and develop such as poverty, sleep habits, stress and trauma. They utilized Dr. Susan Bazyk’s program “Refreshing Recess” to facilitate play, address conflicts and promote positive mental health. It had a positive effect on classroom learning and behaviors. Students developed their own program, “Friendship Circles,” for first- and second-graders that provided a mini lesson and activity each week related to social-emotional learning.

Since beginning the partnership with LFLA in May 2021, Milton and Bricker have supervised a total of 12 students in Level II placements with the school. In addition, Milton has been able to support her mentored scholarship students, doctoral capstone students, and Level I Fieldwork students in ongoing projects and health initiatives at the school, expanding the visibility and value of OT services in supporting the needs of LFLA students. The partnership with the Program was so successful that LFLA hired Kara Wolters, OTD ’21, who completed her Level II Fieldwork and capstone project there, as a full-time school-wide occupational therapist.

“I am grateful that I had the opportunity to complete my second Level II Fieldwork and my capstone at LFLA. I immersed myself in program development, built relationships with LFLA staff and students, learned about the school system, and created a job for myself. It was such a valuable experience and prepared me to become LFLA's occupational therapist. I love what I do, and I would not be here if it had not been for the Washington University OT and LFLA partnership,” Wolters explains.

Two more capstone students and another Level II Fieldwork student will be at LFLA in fall 2022. Milton will also have several lab students there every Wednesday to implement specific programming that addresses positive mental health promotion and prosocial behaviors such as gratitude, kindness and empathy. “Another key component of this model is sustainability. Our students are there every week working with their students, making connections and providing consistency. Having Kara there full-time and as a fieldwork educator in the future will only strengthen our relationship with LFLA and their students,” Milton says.

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