As he’s being loaded into a kayak in the Eastern Washington University pool one evening, George Davis says he’s actually a pretty good kayaker, except for one thing.
“I just can’t see where I’m going,” said Davis, a Navy veteran who started losing his sight at age 30 and was completely blind by 50. “But no problem.”
Davis is a regular at the weekly Team River Runner kayaking event where therapeutic recreation students Kristen Eissman and Austin Kapalo help veterans learn to kayak in a way that meets their physical and mental health needs.
The recreational program at EWU is hands-on and prepares students to use recreational activities to help patients achieve goals both physical and mental.
To graduate, students must complete 1,500 volunteer hours and a 16-week internship, and can elect to take the National Council on Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) exam.
“When you think about leisure, that’s really how we identify ourselves,” said Emily Messina, program adviser. “A lot of us might not be who we are if it weren’t for our daily walks or our camping trips with our spouse or whatever kind of rounds out the edges and makes us who we are.”
Each cohort at Eastern spends dozens of hours each semester honing their skills by volunteering at women’s shelters and veterans organizations as well as shadowing working recreational therapists. They help blind individuals play sports, acting as guides, as sounding boards for frustrations and as coaches, helping them achieve their goals as athletes.
This past fall, students put together a practice trick-or-treating activity for children on the autism spectrum to help them navigate sensory issues that might arise during a typical Halloween experience. Parents could then help their children unpack how the experience made them feel and how to deal with it in a healthy manner.
A recreational therapist can work in a variety of settings including outdoor pursuits, adaptive sports or in a hospital.
Therapeutic recreation has grown over the last two decades, with just under 20,000 jobs in the profession in 2018, according to the United States Department of Labor.
The department predicts a 7% growth rate in the profession over the next 10 years, which is faster than average. In Washington, the average salary for a recreational therapist is about $60,000, putting among the top five in the nation, with between 100 and 200 recreational therapists employed in the state.
The largest area of growth in the profession is therapeutic recreation programs for elderly populations, according to the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. In Washington, Messina said she’s noticed a recent spike in recreational therapists as a part of behavioral health treatments.
Currently, visits to a recreational therapist are not directly reimbursable by Medicare but that is something Messina said the profession as a whole is working toward.
“As this insurance landscape changes and health care makes more of a move toward that full body wellness and that whole person health idea, we’re trying to get a hold of that,” Messina said.
Eissman drew inspiration for her future career from a lengthy hospital stay she endured in childhood. She used art as a coping mechanism for both her disability and a long hospital stay, which inspired her to help others live full and healthy lives in the face of struggles.
In elementary school, Eissmann was diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome, a disorder that affects the way her brain interprets light signals. It changed her life.
“It makes it very, very difficult to communicate, to put forth your best efforts when it comes to academics, especially reading and literacy,” Eissmann said.
While struggling with her classes and daily life in general, Eissmann said, “I felt like garbage.” But corrective lenses and learning more about her diagnosis changed how she managed, and succeeded at, school.
After she graduated high school, she expected to spend the next few years either golfing or studying at Sonoma State University.
Then Eissmann got another devastating diagnosis: She had been infected by Epstein-Barr virus. EBV typically causes mononucleosis, but Eissmann believes it caused her chronic fatigue syndrome. The disorder is complicated but is characterized by extreme fatigue that cannot be explained by an underlying medical condition, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“I became bedridden for a little bit,” Eissmann said. “I lost all my muscle. I couldn’t open doors. I got really, really sick.”
Eissmann had to quit golf and school to focus on her health.
“Stepping down as an athlete was the biggest heartbreak I think I’ve ever had in my life,” Eissmann said.
As she navigated the slew of doctors appointments, tests and treatment options, Eissmann said her mental health took a big hit.
So Eissmann turned to art, something that had always been a hobby but never a focus.
“When I was really sick, I was really into painting for a long time,” Eissmann said. “It’s this really big psychological and emotional detox.”
Eissmann said art helped process her emotions and frustrations while stuck on bedrest.
“When people experience an illness or they’re locked in a hospital room for a long time, you can start to feel sad, depressed a little bit,” she said.
The goal of a recreational therapist, Eissmann said, is to help people use activities to keep them busy and involved in a supportive community.
“People can feel a decrease in depression, sadness, anxiety and it helps mentor them through their rehabilitation process, whatever that may be, an illness or physical injury,” Eissmann said.
As treatment worked and her health improved, Eissmann was ready to find a new goal to work toward – helping others through medical difficulties similar to what she went through.
Initially, she thought that occupational therapy would be a good fit. But then, on a visit to EWU, a few faculty members mentioned that therapeutic recreation might be a better fit.
She found the therapeutic recreation program after a campus visit and was shocked to see that it was “verbatim” everything she wanted in a career, Eissman said.
Once at Eastern, Eissmann continued to use art as not only an emotional outlet but as a tool to learn. She sketched the cardiovascular system and organs to help her understand her anatomy and physiology classes.
“I process a lot of things through artwork,” Eissmann said.
Excited to help others find recreational outlets to process through their ailments, Eissmann piled on the volunteer hours.
By volunteering at Sports 4 the Blind, an art and healing unit at Providence Sacred Heart, and a behavioral health unit at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute, she completed her 1,500 hours early.
Eissmann has accepted an internship in Lakewood, Colorado, in the Recreation and Inclusion Services for Everyone program, which provides art, culture, dance and adaptive sports programs to people with disabilities.
“It’s relieving in a sense, because that was such a big huge step to have to conquer at the end of the program,” Eissmann said.
She plans to move to Colorado to start work after her graduation in May.
“At risk of sound cliche, my overall impression is, it’s really about recreation,” Eissmann said. “Every opportunity that this program gives you, it’s really in your hands and they give you an amazing support system to help you achieve your goals.”
A huge part of that support system is Messina, a professor who both Kapalo and Eissmann said pushes them to achieve their full potential.
Messina often faces an uphill battle in trying inspire students to join a little-known profession that is she said is often under-used.
Before coming to Eastern, Messina worked at a maximum security forensic mental health facility where her patients not only had severe mental illnesses but were facing criminal charges.
Messina would use different recreational activities to help patients work on skills needed to cope with their diagnoses.
If a patient was diagnosed with schizophrenia and experienced hallucinations or delusions, Messina would help them work on their attention span or on appropriate behavior management through an activity, like painting or gardening. Messina tracked patients’ responses to challenging aspects of the activities and noted when they were unable to manage destructive behaviors.
“I’m able to monitor for all those behaviors when the pressure is off – it’s not a stressful situation,” Messina said.
After treating patients for years, Messina made the switch to inspiring students to pursue the profession as the head of the Therapeutic Recreation Program at EWU.
“It was a perfect fit between my wanting to help others and be involved in health care settings and then also my background in recreation,” Messina said.
For Kapalo, another of Messina’s students, helping people was a major reason he decided to attend college in the first place.
Kapalo grew up on a farm with his single mother and siblings in Moses Lake and was able to stay out of trouble with the help of his grandfather.
In his senior year of high school, Kapalo found a mentor who was a physical therapist in town. Kapalo spent a lot of time in the physical therapy office picking up a few things and hearing stories about Eastern, where his mentor also went to school.
As a first-generation college student, Kapalo asked his mentor a lot of questions about attending the four-year university and picked up a job to help cover expenses. Still, his first year and half in school were a struggle.
“I was like, ‘I don’t like college. I don’t like being here,’” Kapalo said. “I feel like I’m just a number.”
He even called his mother and told her so, but she encouraged him to look at other options. After taking career-services classes, he found therapeutic recreation.
“It was the first time in my life I think I’ve ever been willing to fully embrace a challenge without any real question or hesitation,” Kapalo said.
The first volunteer opportunity that really clicked for Kapalo was working with veterans at Team River Runner.
“That was the first population and first instance where I knew that this was the difference I was meant to make and that I had truly found what I not only was good at, but what I was meant to do,” Kapalo said.
The opportunity was even more special because Kapalo’s grandfather was a World War II veteran who recently died in his late 90s.
“He was just the epitome of the type of person you want to grow up to be,” Kapalo said. “I kind of just have those rich ties.”
Kapalo said he knew from spending time with his grandfather just how under-served veterans are.
For an adaptive sports event such as kayaking, recreational therapists talk to a client about their prior injuries, their goals and what they want to get out of the day. They keep the goals measurable and consistently check-in to make sure the client is feeling supported.
“If you’ve ever laughed for an hour and a half straight while kayaking and completely working your body to the absolute limit, I think anyone would realize that they love working with veterans,” Kapalo said.
Kapalo and Davis clearly have a rhythm when it comes to shipping Davis out in his kayak. Kapalo held Davis’ arm and told him the kayak was on his right side, as Davis cracked jokes.
Davis climbed in and adjusted his lifejacket. Kapalo handed him his paddle.
Davis zigzagged across the pool for about an hour, stopping to chat with Kapalo more than once. Davis bought his own kayak a couple years ago and heads out to the open water in the summer as often as he can.
“They’re real great kids,” Davis said of his student therapists. “They’re real patient.”
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