Ron Klemp, St. Aemilian-Lakeside’s new occupational therapist, gets to run around and play a lot on the job. But it’s all with a purpose.
“I’m providing the boys with the tools they can use while they are here and when they leave, so they can function better and stay on track,” he said. “We look for the tools that can enhance self-regulation. And hopefully along the way it’s fun!”
Ron works with all 37 boys in the agency’s residential program and soon will begin working in the homes of treatment foster families. When he is not doing evaluations and assessments of children’s needs, consulting with staff and therapists on treatment plans and goals, much of his time is focused on the rhythmic and repetitive (R and R) activities that calm the lower brain and create behavior regulation.
On a recent afternoon, that involved rhythmically tossing bean bags around with a group, running in large circles and doing push-ups and yoga poses. The goal was to get the boys’ “engines” running at just the right level, not too high or too low. They gauged their feelings before and after the exercises.
“It’s not bad if they say they are high or low; feelings are just feelings,” Ron said. “We want them to be able to identify their own feelings and energy levels and to find out what activities get them to just right.”
Ron’s work focuses on giving the kids understanding and control of their own behavior.
“When they begin to have that, they can see that their emotions don’t have to be the driving force,” he said. “They can see that, ‘I can influence the situation and I can influence myself.’”
Each boy who enters the residential program gets an OT assessment from Ron, the first full-time occupational therapist the agency has had in recent years. He then develops R and R activities that can be carried out by unit staff. Along the way, he provides feedback to treatment teams and to families at the time of discharge on what works best for each boy.
Ron particularly likes St. Aemilian-Lakeside’s team approach and working within the framework of trauma informed care and the neurosequential model of therapeutics that are practiced here.
“I like the vision this place has, and I really like how the framework provides a way to target therapy for each individual kid,” he said. “And I really like developing relationships and trust.”
From its development, occupational therapy has been geared toward doing what is necessary to gain meaning from life, and that fits perfectly into St. Aemilian-Lakeside’s sixth of the Seven Essential Ingredients to understanding and implementing trauma informed care: finding a child’s reason for being, Ron said. Ingredients four and five, the role the lower brain plays in recovery from traumatic experiences and the importance of relationships, are part of Ron’s everyday routine.
“He’s a great addition to the team,” said Chris Kangas, a child and family therapist at St. Aemilian-Lakeside who collaborates with Ron. “He is becoming the personification of the whole TIC and NMT approach. He can role-model, actually facilitate and coach those lower- brain activities to help improve our programming.”
Ron started at St. Aemilian-Lakeside in January. Before that, he worked for three years at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex doing OT on adult and children in-patient units. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy, but he has worked in some kind of a behavioral health setting for 12 years.
Reflecting on the term occupational therapy, Ron said a child’s “occupation” is being a student, a participant in sports or other activities, or being a son or a daughter.
“I try to find the building blocks to support those ‘occupations,’ so they can have improved relationships and function better. And they need to know when they leave here there are ways they can be OK – and hopefully happier.”
One of Ron’s greatest joys is seeing progress in a child with whom he is working.
“When I see success in a child, it brings a wide smile to my face and it makes me want to yell out, ‘Awesome! ‘That is so cool!’ “
Ron’s hiring dovetails with a national movement sponsored by the American Occupational Therapy Association to recognize OTs as mental health providers, not merely rehabilitation practitioners.
“OT should be valued as a mental health modality,” said Ann Leinfelder Grove, vice president for Strategy and Innovation. “We have seen wonderful success with the sensory work provided through OT, and seeing that April is OT month, let’s all give acknowledgment to Ron for his dedication to finding hope and healing for the children we serve.”