Karen Finnerty: Creating an Impact in Schools
Karen Finnerty, OTR/L
As an occupational therapist working in several elementary schools in Dutchess County, New York, Karen has still managed to have a big impact on the teachers and students she encounters.
One of Karen’s most comprehensive projects is the Wee Deliver program, which was created by the U.S. Postal Service for schools. Karen modified the materials so they would be appropriate for the students on her workload, who are 12 to 14 years old although their cognitive age is much younger.
As part of the program the students fill out job applications for postmaster (run the post office) stampers (check mail for proper “postage”), mail carriers (pick up and delivery), and sorters (by floor, then by room, and bundle for delivery). They are then required to select two teachers on their own, ask them to write them a reference, and give them the reference form. They are interviewed by one teacher (Finnerty recruits three so no one is overwhelmed) and the principal, based on the job criteria and their skills.
As the occupational therapist, Karen instructs the students in how to dress for the interviews, emphasizes the importance of good hygiene (e.g., no dirty hands), and coaches them on other basic activities of daily living involved with the interview process. She then discusses the job responsibilities with them and helps them prepare for their duties.
As part of the Wee Deliver program the local postmaster conducts the inauguration ceremony for students. They hold their jobs for 3 months (except the postmaster position, which changes bimonthly), then they rotate.
To facilitate delivery, each class names its room (Karen’s is 201 Therapy Lane) and designs a mailbox for outside the door. Classrooms are further distinguished by floor: Uptown, Middletown, and Downtown.
Karen set up a letter writing station, and all students are encouraged to write to anyone in the building at least once a week. Much of the paper is donated by families, and the school also uses stationery from former superintendants that would otherwise be thrown away. Students address the letters using a master list in the cafeteria. They are required to use a sticker for a stamp or to draw a stamp in the corner, or the letter is returned to sender.
From Tuesday through Thursday the students in the program sort the letters. They deliver them on Friday, using actual mail carrier bags supplied by the postal service.
As part of their jobs, the students are required to sign in and out of a book in the occupational therapy clinic. Each week they use this book to calculate their hours, which they submit to Karen. In turn, she pays them with fake money to spend at the school store on items she has already purchased.
Karen uses the first half of the school year to establish the program, and it runs during the second half of the year. The students on her workload get high visibility for doing a coveted job while learning essential skills, and everyone in the building sees how occupational therapy can facilitate student success across a wide range of areas.
Maintaining a Presence
Because Karen travels among schools, she makes her presence known even when she’s not there. For example she decorates a bulletin board at each of her schools prior to parent open houses, and she leaves Tip Sheets and Fact Sheets from AOTA’s Web site outside her door for others to take. Parents volunteering in other areas of the school often ask what she’s doing, and teachers ask her to attend parent report card conferences. Karen comments that the teachers are very supportive and cooperative because she shows results and they believe in what she does.
For AOTA’s Annual Backpack Awareness Day, Karen did a full day of activities at each of her schools. She used materials from the AOTA Web site, but she also did things spontaneously, like asking parents to carry their children’s backpacks inside when they dropped them off (parents are often shocked at how heavy the backpacks are). She shows students how to pack their bags to level off the weight, and she requests an additional set of textbooks for home for those students with an IEP who need to carry less weight. Again, she doesn’t get any resistance to her requests, because she gets results.
During OT Month Karen held raffles for teachers, using a different list of questions each week. The questions ranged from “What do you think OT is?” to “Why would you refer a child to occupational therapy? What would you look for?” Prizes included items with the OT Month logo, like sweatshirts, pens, and other giveaways. The answers and winners were revealed during weekly faculty meetings, and all teachers who participated got an OT pencil in their mailbox. Karen gave an enormous basket of OT-themed prizes to the teacher with the most correct answers for the month. She notes that last year one teacher went to the AOTA Web site to get answers, which Karen thought that this level of self-education epitomized the purpose of the quizzes. The teachers usually start asking about April’s prizes in December!
Karen doesn’t limit her promotions to the schools. She gives friends and family members OT sticky notes, jar openers, and other items, which they all use. When they have guests, these items provide an opportunity for them to explain occupational therapy to others, and the cycle continues.