A common misconception is that St. Catherine University’s online occupational therapy assistant program is 100% online – it’s not. You can’t learn how to be an OTA without putting what you’ve learned to action. How? With OTA fieldwork. Our students complete over 700 hours of OTA fieldwork in the field and get to experience a wide variety of occupational therapy practice areas. While most students do fieldwork in clinics, assisted nursing facilities, and schools, one of our students recently completed fieldwork at a unique place – Mona’s Ark.
At Mona’s Ark, you won’t find people in scrubs, but you will find Fluffernutter, Munchkin, Oreo, and Bambi—just a few of the therapy animals that call Mona’s Ark home. Located in Roanoke, VA, Mona’s Ark is helmed by—you guessed it—Mona, an occupational therapist with more than 25 years of experience. Created solely for therapy, Mona started her non-profit organization with an aim to treat people of all ages with a wide range of special needs and diagnoses that include: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Cerebral Palsy, behavioral disorders, and more.
Mona incorporates therapy into caring for the animals, teaching clients how to brush the llamas, showing them how to card wool, and even teaching clients wet felting. The wide variety of animals—including llamas, alpacas, rabbits, ducks, dogs, and goats – have helped many people perform seemingly ordinary tasks, like talking.
One client’s parent shares how working with Mona changed her son’s life. “At the age of seven, my son [Jonathan] had not yet spoken his first word. Then we met Mona. Jonathan began relating to the animals in a way that I have never seen him relate to people.”
According to Jonathan’s parent, working with the animals gave him a reason to communicate and his first words, “It’s just you and me Rascal,” came quickly after.
Before becoming an OTA student with St. Catherine University, Dawn was working in elementary schools as a special education aid. She discovered occupational therapy through seeing it in action in her own school. At the age of 51, Dawn is back in school to become an occupational therapy assistant and says to other adults who think they’re too old to go back to school, “it’s not too late.”
Dawn had completed fieldwork in an adult day care and an aging day care center before starting fieldwork at Mona’s Ark—an experience that would obviously be very different. Asked to sum up her experience, Dawn says that being at Mona’s was a “phenomenal experience.” Dawn’s favorite part of working at Mona’s was seeing how the animals reacted to a person with a disability.
“If I got a llama out and it was giving me attitude, it didn’t do that with the client,” Dawn says. “It sensed that this person was different and they needed to act a different way. They would perform for them or do whatever the client was asking them.”
Interaction with the wide variety of animals is an integral part of Mona’s Ark. With the help and supervision of a therapist, clients are able to get the llamas and alpacas out, take them for walks, and let them graze.
Clients that are wheelchair bound or have limited mobility are able to hold, pet, and brush the rabbits, dogs, and ducks.
But animals aren’t all they have at Mona’s Ark. The garden—a new endeavor—also provides therapy for clients. Dawn’s favorite client, Michael, loved the garden; specifically the tomatoes.
Michael, who lives in a long-term cohabitation facility, is happiest when he can have his favorite meal – a tomato sandwich. At Mona’s Ark, the staff planted tomatoes specifically for Michael to care for – and eat. When Michael first started working with Dawn, he was very dependent; he could pick the tomatoes, but relied on Dawn to assemble his tomato sandwiches. Putting her OTA education into action, Dawn began working with Michael.
“I broke the steps down,” Dawn says. “I would have him get out all the materials and I would verbally cue him, ‘Alright Michael, what do we need next?’ I would cut the tomatoes for him, but by the end, he could get the supplies out, tell me what came next, assemble the sandwich, and then he got to eat it!”
In Michael’s long-term cohabitation facility, all of his meals are prepared for him, so he doesn’t get to practice assembling his own food – something he was very happy to do at Mona’s Ark.
“He’s a tapper; he would tap you on the shoulder when he’s happy,” Dawn says. “We would get lots of taps on our shoulders when he was enjoying himself.”
Dawn’s favorite part of working with Michael? Seeing how her work as an OTA was helping him make progress. “It’s like there’s a missing piece and we fill in the missing piece to make that connection that they need.”
Stories like Dawn’s may seem unique, but the truth is, as a student you are able to work with a wide variety of clients through fieldwork. Functioning much like an internship, you will put what you’re learning online into practice under the supervision and guidance of a fieldwork educator. Crucial to helping you transition from student to practitioner, you will complete fieldwork in the following areas of occupational therapy:
Why is fieldwork so important? Dawn says it best, “It connects the dots. Online learning is fine, but you need that human interaction. You need that chance to brainstorm and use what you’ve been taught—it’s vital.”
Think a career as an occupational therapy assistant would be the perfect job for you? Learn more about the Online OTA program at St. Catherine University by contacting our admissions team today.