Rec therapy students assisting veterans via summer internships


Espe, Kerr and Jones

From left: Slippery Rock University recreational therapy majors Aimee Espe of Johnstown; Rachel Kerr of Harmony; and Hunter Jones of Erie are interning at the Louis Stokes VA in Cleveland, Ohio.

July 29, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Scattered across Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York, a group of Slippery Rock University recreation therapy students have been spending their final summer as college students in the service of others, rather than themselves.

Rather than a leisurely vacation, the 10 soon-to-be graduates are spending their "off time" interning at Veterans Affairs medical centers throughout the region.

The students are carrying out multiple functions that will eventually lead to national certification as recreational therapists. By the close of the 16-week outings, each will be able to successfully pass the job analysis portion of their national exams; properly assess a client; determine individual needs; outline goals and objectives for patients; regulate appropriate interventions; and computerize documentation.

"All of these seniors are competent, highly motivated students who applied for the internships with the Veterans Administration with hopes of working with veterans in the future," said Deborah Hutchins, SRU program director of recreational therapy. "All they need to succeed are to take the knowledge and skills they learned at the University and apply it at the VA."

The group includes:

  • Tyler Balbierer from Glenmoore: Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Pennsylvania);
  • Amber Bowser from New Kensington: VA Western New York Healthcare System (New York);
  • Aimee Espe from Johnstown: Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center (Ohio);
  • Kaylee Faull from Grove City: VA Butler Healthcare Community Living Center (Pennsylvania);
  • Hunter Jones from Erie: Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center (Ohio);
  • Rachel Kerr from Harmony: Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center (Ohio);
  • Shelby Murphy from New Castle: VA Butler Healthcare Community Living Center (Pennsylvania);
  • Hannah Panchik from Worthington: VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System (Pennsylvania);
  • Nick Rohm from Turbotville: Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center (Pennsylvania); and
  • Hannah Shelley from Exeter: Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center (Pennsylvania)

For Espe, the privilege of working with veterans began long before she walked through the doors of the Louis Stokes facility. Her experience began in the horse corral - an arena she had nearly missed altogether.

As a second-semester sophomore, Espe, a former special education major, made the bold decision to transition into recreational therapy after conversations about the major with a friend.

"As much as I wanted to help others, I realized my life goal wasn't to be in a classroom every day," said Espe. "It was my friend, who was majoring in rec therapy herself, who pointed me in the right direction. She helped me envision exactly what I had hoped to do from the start."

Espe's first stop was a practicum at SRU's Storm Harbor Equestrian Center with the "Horses for Heroes" program, an initiative funded through an adaptive sports grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The equine-assisted recreational therapy program is an SRU initiative that addresses both veterans' physical and mental disabilities. Through grooming and therapeutic riding, participants can experience social and physiological benefits including: improved respiration and circulation; improvement in gross motor functioning and cognition; reduced symptoms of stress or anxiety; decreased risk of depression; and reconnection with other people.

Storm Harbor has worked with more than 100 veterans per year since the program's inception in 2006. Veterans can participate in the program on a one-time basis or visit multiple times to expand their skills. Since 2010, recreational therapists have been conducting equine-assisted activities for veterans with varying conditions, including: post-traumatic stress disorder; amputations; spinal cord injuries; traumatic brain injuries; and neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease.

And while Espe may have been teaching her heroes how to handle a curry brush or a saddle cinch, she was learning her own lessons in the process.

"As they told me stories of their military careers and I watched them interact with the horses, I realized how much I enjoyed it all," said Espe. "Their smiles gave me more passion for this work. I knew I wanted to spend my life helping to make their lives better."

That resolve led to her internship acceptance at the third largest VA campus in the nation. Like each of her SRU colleagues, Espe's work this summer focuses on clinical treatment areas including: behavioral health; rehabilitation; dementia care; spin cord unit; or adaptive sports.

"I am very thankful to have been given the opportunity to complete my internship at the Cleveland VA," Espe said. "Each day I wake up excited to go into work.

"Working with veterans keeps you on your toes, but also gives you the best life lessons. During my first rotation I worked with the gambling treatment program and during the time, was able to watch a program graduation ceremony. On graduation day, one of the veterans approached me with a pack of Lifesavers and said, 'These are for you because you helped save my life.' These moments remind me that I am in the right field and how fortunate I am with this opportunity."

Despite the short time the students have spent at their assignments, for some, the power of the shared bonds has been undeniable.

"I am proud and lucky to serve those who have served our country," said Shelley. "Hearing their stories is a truly amazing and very humbling experience. I love that I have had the opportunity to build relationships with these veterans and help them continue to live happy and healthy lives."

MEDIA CONTACT: Maizee Zaccone | 724.738.2091 |