ASU alumna advances career in recreational therapy

Not long after she graduated from the School of Community Resources and Development with a concentration in therapeutic recreation in 2010, alumna Aimee Nelson became a full-time employee at the Barrow Neurological Institute in St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center.

Nelson is constantly educating her patients, their family members, her co-workers and community members about recreational therapy and its role in neurorehabilitation. In the acute setting, she works with a population that has sustained a new injury, but Nelson is also a chauffeur, pair of ears, support group, cheerleader, teacher and student in her field.

“I always stress to my patients that recreation therapy is helping our patients to return to the things that are most important to them,” Nelson says. “The point of healing is (for patients) to go home and live their lives, and we are the ones who will adapt an activity or introduce new passions to help them do just that.”

The College of Public Programs spoke with Nelson about what it means to be a recreation therapist.

CoPP: How did you get your current position as a recreational therapist?

Aimee Nelson: I was an intern on the Neurorehabilitation Unit (NRU) from September 2010 to December 2010. At the time, my clinical instructor joked that I was completing a 16-week interview. After completion of the internship and passing my certification exam, I was offered an on-call position with the department. I worked 20 hours a week at Neurorehab and 20 hours a week at the Center for Transitional Neurorehabilitation (CTN). Six months later I became a full-time employee on Neurorehab.

CoPP: What is a day in your life at St. Joseph’s like?

Aimee Nelson: I am responsible for five teams of four to five patients each. This includes documentation and attending weekly team meetings with medical staff. I run three to four community reintegration sessions a week to various locations in the community including but not limited to local parks, movie theaters, restaurants, museums, shopping centers, golf courses, etc. … on campus, we have access to a heated therapy pool five days a week where we run our aquatic therapy program. While there is no set schedule each week, all programs are facilitated at least once. I work with team members including occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech language pathologists, and other recreational therapists in facilitating these groups for increased safety and therapeutic value. Teamwork and flexibility are crucial to the success of the recreation therapy department.

CoPP: What should students specializing in the recreational therapy program know about the field?

Aimee Nelson:  Recreation therapy is full of potential and new opportunity. The field is always growing! When I was a student I really liked the idea of being able to work with different populations and settings if I felt I needed a change. While some fields can be so specific, I feel there is so much room for growth and a diverse range of people and organizations to work with as a recreation therapist.

CoPP: What was the best part of the therapeutic recreation program at ASU?

Aimee Nelson: I felt I was constantly being challenged in my coursework and encouraged to ask the question behind the question. Another vital piece of the program was the fieldwork experience. This was invaluable to my undergraduate work as it assisted in centering my focus and established my strengths and preferences in the work field.

CoPP: Why is it important that the program includes community-engaged projects, fieldwork experience and a professional internship?

 Aimee Nelson: As a student, completing the fieldwork experience hours can seem daunting. I was so grateful for the experience I had when it came time to apply for and complete my internship … it helped me center my focus and find an internship that was right for me. Since the internship is a 16-week commitment, I wanted it to be in a setting that is interesting and challenging. The internship is what really strung all my coursework together … the experience was invaluable and I was able to make community connections I would never have otherwise had the opportunity to.

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The therapeutic recreation concentration is an option within the bachelor of science in parks and recreation management degree program, which also prepares students for national professional certification offered through the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification.

Community-engaged projects and fieldwork experiences are a required component of the curriculum. Alternative professional pathways to certification are available for students who completed a degree in another field of study.