The future looks fun for outstanding grad who discovered joys of recreational therapy

Friday, May 3, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Having fun is a lifelong habit of Kelly Walsh. It’s important to her as a person aspiring to remain healthy and strong in her quest to help improve the lives of others.

But now having fun for Walsh, the spring 2019 outstanding graduate for the School of Community Resources and Development in Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, is also part of a framework for rigorous thought and scientific practice. Walsh, of New Hartford, Connecticut, intends to use her Bachelor of Science degree in parks and recreation management with a concentration in therapeutic recreation to help advance wellness of individuals and communities.

“At the end of the day,” Walsh said, “if you’re not having fun and you’re too stressed out about the work you’re doing, you’re not going to remember those days as being some of the better days of your life, you know?”

Walsh, who also earned a certificate in cross-sector leadership, has had fun at Arizona State University, while serving as a resident assistant on the Tempe campus, being part of the first cohort of the Next Generation Service Corps of the Public Service Academy, co-founding the Devils Spark Change service organization and being part of a team that qualified for a Woodside Grant that purchased equipment for therapeutic recreation at the Maricopa Reentry Center.

Fun as a recreational therapist is an entirely different category. It’s life-changing.

“How I do recreational therapy is to take a holistic approach to working with individuals to tackle any mental or physical barrier they may be having in their lives,” Walsh said.

Through internships and other programs and projects, Walsh has seen that approach work in multiple settings, including healthcare institutions, such as Barrow Neurological Institute, and correctional facilities, such as the Maricopa Reentry Center. Progress can come in the form of patients playing board games with family members or men in a conference room meeting a challenge to keep an inflated balloon from touching the floor.

Who knew?

Walsh didn’t. Not at first.

Walsh didn’t enroll at ASU to become a recreational therapist. At first, she thought she wanted to be a speech language pathologist but changed her mind after a few classes. An adviser picked up on Walsh’s interest in the Special Olympics and suggested a degree in nonprofit leadership management. That was another wrong path.

How about recreation therapy, the adviser asked. Walsh asked for an explanation of what that was and liked what she heard.

“That sounds like you get to make people have fun for a living, and that’s exactly what we do,” she recalls thinking. “I didn’t know you could do that as a profession. You get paid to teach other people how to play.”

There’s a need for play, said Walsh, whose parents instilled in her at a young age the importance of participating in diverse activities to maintain physical and mental health. Through her ASU experience, she now knows there’s a science behind therapeutic play and methods behind the practice.

She also fervently believes leisure and relaxation should be for everyone. Walsh has a particular interest in recreational therapy in correctional settings. Her immediate plans after graduation aren’t set in stone, but she has a career goal of using leisure to reduce recidivism rates.

“I believe all individuals have the right to leisure and that no citizen should be locked away without some form of outlet to cope with the circumstances they are in,” Walsh said. “When individuals are in correctional facilities, they suffer from prisonization, which essentially strips away their identity. I believe recreation helps bring people together and build individuals back up.”

Through her involvement with the Next Generation Service Corps, Walsh said she has spent a lot of time understanding what it means to be a character-driven leader. At the same time, her hands-on experiences in recreation therapy gave richer, deeper meaning to textbook knowledge. She connected it all to the care she was giving clients battling addiction, experiencing homelessness, adjusting to traumatic injury or learning how to live with a mental health diagnosis.

“I am excited to have developed a new love for learning in the past year that focuses on the worth of the materials being learned, but more importantly, how they are being translated in the communities we are serving,” Walsh said.

Walsh is interested in diving deeper into the research on recreational therapy. Recreational therapists need the education that comes from evidenced-based practice to deliver the treatment people need, she said, adding she’ll forever remember something instructor Kelly Ramella taught her about pursuing passion and earning respect for the profession:

“Recreational therapy is not the most accredited profession in the field,” she said. “We have to push through if we believe in the practice that we preach. And we have to make sure the other professions understand that we are credible and our clients see us as being a source in their recovery.”

Walsh’s best advice to students is not hard to guess: Seek knowledge and experiences beyond the classroom. Connect with people who have interests and perspectives unlike your own. Find places to experience new things and ideas.

And, of course, have fun.

Story by Jennifer Dokes