LEWISTON — In an office down a long wing at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College, 4-year-old Benjamin Smart swam in a ball pit, fished toys out of a puppet’s brain and made easy work of a slide in an hourlong therapy session with Lauren Conigliaro.
The session was free, and it’s helping them both.
Last month, USM-LAC opened a new student-run clinic to offer occupational therapy to people who might not otherwise get it, staffed by students who have to finish field work for their master’s degree.
“Right now, this is a huge deal,” said Sarah Eugley of Lewiston, watching her son work on motor, sensory and language skills. “Benjamin is behind his peers with these skills and he struggles with them, and it’s obvious at home. He would not have this at all if he wasn’t able to come.”
Mary Anderson, a college lecturer and the clinic coordinator, said she had had the idea for years. The clinic is designed for people with physical and developmental disabilities and set up with a pediatric side with colorful mats and toys, and an adult side with a treadmill and tables.
She’s also working to set up a small kitchen to work on life skills.
Occupational therapy students raised $1,000 for the ball pit. Much of the other therapy equipment came from a private clinic Anderson had run in West Baldwin.
So far there are six students actively serving clients. With 77 in LAC’s occupational therapy master’s program, “my hope is that eventually they’ll all trickle through here for some experiential learning,” Anderson said.
Kelsey Covert of Porter, one of the clinic’s original student board members, worked with a client who has Parkinson’s disease during the clinic’s soft opening in January.
He shared with her that he felt embarrassed, like he was being judged in public.
“(With Parkinson’s) your perception is that you’re taking these normal steps, but you’re not; your gait and balance are affected,” Covert said.
But after four weeks of an intensive therapy regime, the results were striking.
“Seeing him at the end was amazing,” she said. “His affect was better, smiling, laughing, which he didn’t do (at the beginning). He came for our grand opening, he walked in here like you wouldn’t know he had Parkinson’s. It was emotional, in a way — I’m not an emotional person.”
The clinic doesn’t bill for services. It’s designed to serve people whose health insurance has run out or who wouldn’t otherwise have access to therapy.
Anderson said they’ve so far taken anyone who has approached the clinic for help. They’ve also gotten referrals from pediatriains’ offices, schools and St. Mary’s Neurology Associates.
The clinic, which is unique in the USM system, is also working with Momentum, an adult day treatment facility for adults with intellectual disabilities.
It’s open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and she hopes to see it run through the summer.
For clients such as Benjamin, he’s “getting services that he needs at a prime time,” Anderson said. “He’s developing motor planning skills, he’s developing some coordination, even some of his language skills come out a little bit more as we’re working with him.
“For my students, the benefit is definitely the experiential learning, the hands-on, learning, that piece of rapport,” she added. “How do I develop rapport with a little one, how do I develop rapport with parents, and then really implementing the knowledge we’ve taught them in the classroom, really getting to put that into practice. Plus, I think it’s going to make them more marketable out there (on the job market).”
In a year’s time, she hopes to see the clinic open 40 hours a week with clients on both sides the whole time.
“I’d love to get more like this (Benjamin) because I can really sit here and talk to students about what we’re seeing and why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said Anderson. “Yes, it looks like play, but there’s a lot more behind it.”
Eugley is bringing Benjamin twice a week for an hour while he’s waiting for a plan for services.
“They’ve been so helpful with what I feel is important for him to work on,” she said. “It’s been fantastic, and he loves to come.”
Lauren Conigliaro works with Benjamin Smart, 4, at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College Community Clinic in Lewiston. Conigliaro is a second-year student in the master of occupational therapy program and is helping Smart develop motor, balance, sensory and social skills. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
To reach the new USM LAC Community Clinic, 753-6662
Master of occupational therapy program lecturer Mary Anderson, who is overseeing the new free, student-run occupational therapy clinic at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Benjamin Smart, 4, looks forward to catching a ball during an occupational therapy session with Lauren Conigliaro at the new University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College Community Clinic in Lewiston. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)