Emily sitting in truck of donated items The Homeless Health Initiative (HHI) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) interviewed volunteer occupational therapist Emily Thomas, MS, OYR/L, who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of children living in shelter during the pandemic. Traditional hands-on occupational therapy may have been curtailed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but Thomas found creative ways to help the children, their families and shelter staff.

HHI: What does an occupational therapist do?

Emily Thomas: An occupational therapist provides holistic healthcare approach that focuses on daily needs of individuals and identifies ways to bridge the gap and improve the quality of life of individuals. We address occupation and functional life skills, like dressing, bathing, toileting, hygiene. For kids that means playing in a safe and appropriate way for their age, which is their primary education and occupation. We’re essentially a life coach because OT is so broad and, depending on your age, the ‘occupation’ changes. Analyzing the human anatomy, cognition, sensory processing systems, medical status is important.

HHI: What background experiences did you bring to CHOP?

ET: Before starting at CHOP in 2017, I worked at a school with different abilities and needs and at an acute care trauma hospital for adults in Bethlehem, Pa. I’ve always been interested in the homeless population. It goes back to seeing and then helping my mom work toward feeding the homeless population through her church. During graduate school, I learned more about the population and gained insight into what individuals’ everyday life looks like. I always stopped to have conversations with individuals to understand their story. As a fellow with CHOP’s LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) program, I chose to work with the HHI shelters and then kept going back.

HHI: What sparked your interest and desire to volunteer with HHI?

ET: From when I interviewed for the lend fellowship, I knew I wanted to be part of the HHI programming. I have passion for kids and families and believe that occupational therapy gives them the opportunity to thrive. Despite long days at my real job, working with families in shelter have brought me so much joy. I also enjoy brainstorming and collaborating with staff to problem solve and find solutions for some of the challenges things families face.

HHI: What volunteer experiences did you have with HHI?

ET: Pre-pandemic, I volunteered for the SPARK (Safe Physical Activity and Recreation for Kids) Programs with the aim of injecting some OT goals into the sessions. I also volunteered when the Vetri Community Partnership put on healthy cooking demonstrations.

HHI: What was most meaningful about your volunteer experiences with HHI?

ET: On the human level, being in contact with kids and families and caring about them brought an abundant amount of joy, especially when I can work and interact with a kid who might’ve been struggling. I wanted to give kids an hour of my undivided attention a day. The occupational therapist in me wanted to facilitate children reaching different milestones. Parents told me they were astonished about how impactful my work was for their children.

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