Gym dandy: Occupational Therapy students help design therapeutic center for Damar facility


When students and staff from the University’s School of Occupational Therapy began working with the staff and residents of Damar Services several years ago, none of them realized what a beneficial partnership it would become.

And what started as occupational students visiting Damar to work with the residents eventually turned into a fine example of a recognized fieldwork experience for the students.

Damar (pronounced “day-mar”) is a residential facility on the west side of Indianapolis that helps children and teens struggling with autism, mental retardation, and other developmental disabilities to live more successful lives. Approximately 145 children between the ages of 6 and 21 live on the campus, attend classes, and receive therapy to help them become more independent.

As part of its capital campaign in 2007, Damar built a multipurpose center complete with a full-size basketball court, stage, and bleachers, giving Damar the opportunity to repurpose its existing half-court gym. After much input and consideration from the staff, Damar opted to transform that space into a therapeutic sensory gym for children with autism.

The play’s the therapy
In spring 2008, Donna Stutler, Damar’s Development Director, asked UIndy occupational therapy students to develop design concepts for a sensory area that would best meet the needs of the Damar residents. Using their consultation skills, the OT students conducted a needs assessment to understand more about Damar and its residents, researching equipment, problem-solving how to use the equipment therapeutically, and interviewing Damar staffers.

When the research was complete, the OT students put together a presentation for the Damar leadership team, and the plan became reality. Money to outfit the gym was raised, equipment was ordered, and in 2010, the gym opened, much to the delight of the kids. Filled with colorful balls, swings, bolsters, a climbing gym, and other specially designed equipment that is able to either stimulate or calm the senses, depending on individual needs, the gym provides a safe and nurturing environment where Damar staff can help residents develop motor control and cognition skills and learn how to interact with other kids.

“It’s so great to see the kids’ faces light up when they go into that gym,” says Stutler. “They run to play there now. It’s also great to see the OT students working with our students and overcoming their fears or hesitations.”

In 2010 and 2011, OT students enrolled in fieldwork experience courses developed a usage manual for the staff at Damar that includes directions about how to use the equipment, warns of safety hazards, and explains how a child could benefit from the equipment. Grad student Olya Mangusheva was part of the class that helped put the training manual together and conducted an in-service workshop for Damar staff.

“We spent six weeks here looking at the equipment and watching how Damar students were using it,” she says. “It’s basically self-directed play, but now we’ve given the staff ideas on how best to use the equipment.”

Direct-care staff at Damar can now safely and properly use the sensory gym equipment without an occupational therapist present.

“The children just love it in here,” says Stephanie Meadows, a direct care staffer. “It calms them down and puts them in a better mood. It’s a nice place to bring them just to have fun or when they are getting a little antsy.”

Giving OT a leg up
This experience also gave OT students an opportunity to advocate for the profession and influence Damar’s decision to expand its occupational therapy component.

“This is more than just a student project,” explains UIndy professor Becky Barton, who works with the OT graduate students. “This is real-life stuff. The students want to do a good job with everything because they know their work will be used.”

It certainly will. In fact, as Damar prepares to replace some of the sensory gym’s well-loved equipment, UIndy students are getting practice in writing mock grants for such items as balls and beanbags used for play therapy.

“It’s so cool to see the evolution with Damar and the work that our OT students have done with them,” says Barton. “Every year another piece gets added, and our client—Damar—gets the services that they need. It’s a wonderful partnership.”