Julia and other students use hand trowels to dig in the fresh soil, prepping for the flowers and vegetables they are about to plant, while still other students pour the new dirt into the other large pots outside the back of the school.
The dog days of summer were upon Elim on this day of planting and the Bridges students were hard at work under the direction of Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant Colleen Johnson, known as Miss Colleen to the students and staff at the school.
In late August, after the students returned for the fall session at Elim, the fruits of their labor had really paid off. The flowers were in full bloom and the vegetables nearly ready for harvest. It turned out to be quite a bounty. This is just one of many engaging projects Miss Colleen brings to the students of Elim’s Bridges and Crossroads Transition programs on a regular basis.
“As an OTA my job is a supportive role to the teacher to promote progress and independence with each student,” she says. “Each one of our students has their own unique challenges and abilities. One of the main goals of the OT is to ensure each student has the opportunity to engage and participate in all Elim has to offer; including classroom activities, extracurricular activities and community-based outings to the best of their ability.”
This is Miss Colleen’s third school year working as an OTA at Elim. However, she has actually been at Elim for more than 25 years. She worked at Elim’s residential program until it closed in 2015. She then went back to school to become an OTA. “I feel blessed that a job opened up and I was able to come back,” she says.
It’s been said that, “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Well, Miss Colleen is well on her way to making that a reality as she says she loves working with the students. “Each one of them truly adds joy to my heart,” Miss Colleen adds.
Understanding of the different ability levels of the students she works with throughout the course of any given week, Miss Colleen says “progress looks different on each of our students. It’s great to see a smile on their face or an excited motion when they have achieved something.
“It’s great to see a smile on their face or an excited motion when they have achieved something. I love when I have been working on a skill for a while and a student finally says ‘I Can do it, I don’t need help’ or when a non-verbal communicator pushes your hand away – to indicate ‘I got this.’ It’s a YES moment!”
Miss Colleen adds that she loves it during a student’s annual review when each member of the team and the family talks about growth and progress that student has made over the year.
Finding different ways to engage with the students throughout the day comes natural to Miss Colleen. She does it through conversation, spending time with them in individual or group sessions or sitting with them at lunch or playing games with them.
“This allows me to build rapport and trust to build on that relationship. I feel the best way to really connect with a student is to collaborate with all their team members – from teachers and other therapists to family members,” she says. “Doing that allows me to see other points of view. I learn what activities they like and where their success and struggles are in other areas.”