When a program closure left many foster youth without access to vital counseling services, Lilli Higgins, a 2017 Oklahoma State University recreational therapy graduate, founded her own therapy nonprofit to help.
More than 430,000 youth are in American foster homes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and research suggests these youth often need specialized mental health services. When the foster youth she worked with were set to be displaced, Higgins stepped into action and in October 2019 founded Together Just. She now provides individual and group therapy sessions, educates primary caregivers and has launched four school-based campaigns to build mental health awareness.
“When the hospital closed, the kids I worked with were totally displaced,” Higgins said. “I started putting pen to paper of what it would look like to start a nonprofit and how I could develop some resources for our community that are accessible, low-cost or even free.”
Higgins describes recreational therapy as “play with purpose,” incorporating an individual’s interests, desires and goals into treatment. For example, youth building skills in frustration management may undertake meticulous crafts, while others might delve into painting or music as they learn to relieve stress.
“Recreational therapists use a collaborative, person-centered technique,” Higgins said. “They incorporate all aspects and interests of the client's life, making the therapy process more meaningful and relevant.”
Working in behavioral health was not in Higgins’ original plans of becoming a physician assistant when she enrolled at OSU. A defining moment in a freshman class changed her career trajectory.
“My professor, Dr. Passmore, asked, ‘Would you look at a child with cerebral palsy who couldn't get out of bed on his own and say ‘Just get up; do it on your own. What's so hard?’ Then he asked, “So why would you look at a person with depression who couldn't get out of bed and just say, ‘Get up!’?”
Higgins describes the “light bulb moment” as her inspiration to become an advocate to remove mental health stigmas. As she worked with nearby public school students and participated in hands-on experiences at the OSU Warm Water Therapy lab and the Cleo L. Craig Child Development Lab, she confirmed her decision to become a recreational therapist.
Located in the Stillwater Medical Center, the OSU Warm Water Therapy Lab allows students opportunities to work directly with clients. The Cleo L. Craig Child Development Lab is located on the OSU campus and serves as a learning lab for early childhood education students and other program areas across campus.
While Higgins was surprised by the sudden inspiration, Dr. Tim Passmore, professor in the School of Kinesiology, Applied Health and Recreation, said Higgins’ experience is not unusual.
“We are the only allied health professionals who can begin with a bachelor's degree,” Passmore said. “Many students enroll in our program because they want to work in a hospital and realize our discipline offers so much more.”
OSU graduates have worked with individuals training for the Paralympic Games, senior citizens in long-term care facilities, patients in Veterans Affairs hospitals and students with behavioral issues in public schools. Students explore many career options and gain experience through one 400-hour clinical internship and a 600-hour clinical rotation.
As the only recreational therapy degree program in Oklahoma, Passmore said OSU graduates are in high demand.
“(Our graduates) tend to be leaders in the profession, both nationally and in the communities they serve,” Passmore said. “Many of our graduates work in clinical facilities and then become hospital administrators, vice presidents of health organizations and senior recreational therapists."
For Higgins, the hands-on experiences prepared her to achieve her long-held dream of running her own recreational therapy nonprofit, albeit a little earlier than she anticipated.
“I left college with so much patient care experience and confidence in my ability to build rapport with a patient and interact with their families,” Higgins said. “I think that's pretty rare for an undergrad program.”
For the foster care youth and clients Higgins works with, that expertise can make all the difference.
Learn more about Oklahoma State University’s nationally accredited program in recreational therapy.
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