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Food, lessons & bonding

Students train as occupational therapy assistants with those experiencing homelessness

GRCC Sydney Murphy encouraged people at Matthew’s House Ministry to stand up and complete exercises that help the lymphatic system eliminate toxins.

Following Murphy’s directions, several people who had come to the northwest Grand Rapids non-profit for a free meal and session led by students in GRCC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program rose from their seats, rubbed and tapped their own neck, chest, hips, the backs of their knees, and wiggled their arms and trunks.

“You could be tired, nauseous, have migraines, stiff joints,” Murphy explained. “This is a technique to wake up your lymphatic system by tapping on the main lymph nodes in your body.  This can overall keep your whole body clear of toxins that make you feel sick or foggy.”

Since September, as part of fieldwork to become occupational therapy assistants, GRCC students have connected with people who are experiencing homelessness and who utilize programs and services at Matthew’s House. The students serve meals – a recent Tuesday’s menu including chicken, ham, mashed potatoes and all the fixings – before beginning lessons attendees might find of value.

Murphy and fellow GRCC students Tanya Dyer, Taylor Barr and Rachel Hill led “Self-care Bingo,” with spaces on the card stating healthy-living practices like “stretch,” “give a compliment” and “exercise.” 

They also practiced mindfulness through breathing techniques and got to know one another by sharing fun, personal facts: “Strawberry Fields by The Beatles” answered one man about his favorite song. “I’m a mechanic,” another man shared. “I work at the VanAndel Arena,” shared another. “I love walking because I can’t drive a car without crashing,” said Mike Baxter,  with a chuckle.

After finishing his meal, Baxter said he enjoys participating in sessions with students while having a free dinner. They’ve focused on nutrition, computer and employment skills and where to find resources. Baxter contributed to a resource guide they created.

“They talk about personal health, where to shop, how to save money on your shopping. They do price comparisons and everything…. They seem to get more detailed every week,” he said.

Murphy sees the value of working with the group as part of her training. 

“You meet a lot of different people from a lot of different areas of life, and that broadens your horizons,” she said.

“It’s a lot of getting to know people and what walk of life they come from. Everyone’s different and needs different things so it’s about really getting to know them on a personal level.”

From left, Albert Nixon and Christopher Grant follow an exercise routine

‘A Diversity of Experiences’

The partnership allows students to fulfill program requirements, but also provides rich experiences with people they might not otherwise have the opportunity to get to know, said Robin Pegg, assistant professor and academic fieldwork coordinator for the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program. 

“Occupational therapy works across the lifespan. That’s why we try to provide a diversity of experiences to the students,” Pegg said. “This is really exciting that GRCC supports these kinds of community partnerships and promotes us doing this as faculty.”

Occupational therapy assistants work with all ages and demographics, and work under supervision of registered occupational therapists. They provide service and intervention with people who have physical, developmental, social or emotional deficits and need specialized assistance.

The two year program, offered through the School of Workforce Development, includes two semesters of field work. At the end of the program the students have an associate degree in applied sciences and are ready to sit for the National Board Exam to become certified and ready to practice.

“It’s a lot of getting to know people and what walk of life they come from. Everyone’s different and needs different things, so it’s about really getting to know them on a personal level.”

– GRCC student Sydney Murphy

During their visits, GRCC students help Matthew’s House participants learn basic computer and pre-employment skills like writing resumes. They’ve offered a class on resources on where to find free clothes and meals, information they gather through a series of interviews with people in the homeless population.

Nutrition has been another focus. Students have shared information on how much sugar is in certain foods, how to make good choices and choose healthy items at food pantries. They’ve taught a lesson, “Cooking without a Kitchen,” for participants who live on the streets.

“Students learn and the community benefits,” is the mission, Pegg said.

From left, Louis Burton joins GRCC occupational therapy assistant Tanya Dyer in an exercise to ‘wake up’ the lymphatic system

Reggie Lott, assistant director of Matthew’s House, said the GRCC students are helping the participants become computer literate and with other skills, such as budgeting. The ministry serves as a communications hub as well as providing transitional housing and other resources.

“I believe it also helps the students become better public speakers and helps them hone their skills when it comes to dealing with the public,” Lott said.

Some students were at first nervous about working with the Matthew’s House population, but that quickly changed, she said. “These same students that were scared to death to walk through that door, now just three weeks into it you go in and watch them sitting down, (saying) ‘Hey Lou, how are you today? How has your week been?’”

As a student, Hill said she’s enjoying the sessions. 

“I went into OT because I have a passion for just helping people. I like to see people thriving in their lives and enjoying their lifestyle. I love working with all ages of the population, from kids to geriatrics,” she said.

Hill’s learning about what topics and information work with different groups of people, such as those at Matthew’s House. “I think it gives us experience in interacting with people and being able to keep it focused on them and what they want and need.”

Students also partner with Ready for Life Academy, which offers post-secondary educational experiences for college-age individuals diagnosed with intellectual disabilities. GRCC students pair with those from Ready for Life to help them access the college curriculum and with living skills, like cooking, shopping, work skills and other home management tasks.

GRCC occupational therapy assistant students, from left, Tanya Dyer, Rachel Hill, Taylor Barr and Sydney Murphy prepare to serve dinner


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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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