Learning Through Giving Back: OT Program Helps Philadelphia Homeowners
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Learning Through Giving Back: OT Program Helps Philadelphia Homeowners

Anna Grasso with OT studentsStepping out of the classroom and putting knowledge to the test is often times the best gift a professor can give their students. In this case, assistant professor within the University’s Occupational Therapy (OT) program, Anna Grasso, MS, OTR/L, CAPS, decided that a partnership with Rebuilding Together Philadelphia (RTP) was the best way for her students to learn while also giving back to the community.

Founded in 1988, RTP is a nonprofit organization that works to provide home renovations and modifications to make homes safe and healthy for vulnerable homeowners. Each year, with the help of over 1,300 volunteers, RTP is able to provide safe and healthy home repairs for 75 to 100 homeowners in the Philadelphia area.

Grasso began volunteering for RTP in the fall of 2018 and officially made an OT/Salus partnership this past February in order to provide year-round volunteer services as a way for students to perform home safety assessments and provide various equipment recommendations.

Jillian Oshita“The opportunity to expose OT fieldwork students to this program was really exciting for me,” Grasso said. “As they learn about home modifications and accessibility throughout their educational program, they rarely have the opportunity to apply that knowledge to practice during their standard coursework.”

As part of the collaboration, OT faculty and students began volunteering for RTP’s most popular event, Block Builds. Held annually in April, June and October, Block Builds utilize between 100 to 250 volunteers, neighbors and homeowners per day in order to repair 10 to 25 homes in a targeted neighborhood.

In April, Jillian Oshita ‘20OT, a Level I Fieldwork student was among the first group to participate in a Block Build. “Hundreds of volunteers came out to help at the RTP Block Build and it was evident on each of the homeowners' faces how appreciative they were of the work we were doing,” Oshita said. “Spending the day going out to different homes and assisting in implementing OT accommodations during the event was so rewarding and truly a great learning experience!”

OT students putting together assistive materialsEarlier this month, Grasso and two OT Level II Fieldwork students, Emily Garcia, MSOT ’19, and MaryElizabeth Zingani, MSOT ’19, spent the weekend at a Block Build in the Haddington neighborhood of West Philadelphia. Prior to the Block Build, they performed four home safety evaluations for homeowners in Haddington so they could be better prepared and provide proper materials for the event. “We were able to return to the homes we had evaluated to deliver adaptive equipment that we had recommended,” Grasso said. “We also made sure to consult with the contractors to ensure that handrails and grab bars were in locations that would be most effective for the homeowners.”

All of the recommendations are aimed at reducing the risk of falls, helping homeowners reduce fatigue, and generally improve a homeowner’s ability to safely perform daily activities within their home environment. Some of the equipment that was delivered included shower chairs, non-slip shower mats/treads, handheld showers, motion lighting for dimly lit hallways and stairwells, and reacher devices to help homeowners pick up items from the floor without bending.

In addition to the four homes they evaluated, they also provided a variety of educational handouts to an additional seven homeowners on topics including decluttering, lighting, fire and heating safety, emergency contact coordination, and local community resources for low cost leisure and socialization opportunities as well as food resources. 

“The feedback we receive from homeowners is overwhelmingly positive, and knowing we have given them practical solutions to improve their safety, health and quality of life is incredibly fulfilling,” Grasso said.

Anna Grasso and OT students holding balloons

Aside from the Block Build, Grasso and two OT students, Andrew Welsh ‘20OT and Shannon Blaney ‘20OT recently participated in RTP’s Ninth Annual Run to Rebuild 5K. Amazingly, with over 300 runners and walkers in attendance, the event raised approximately $50,000. “Run to Rebuild was a fun event hosted in a beautiful area for a great cause,” Blaney said.

Although she was not able to participate in the most recent Block Build, Blaney had the opportunity to volunteer a few years prior. “It was such a valuable experience,” she said. “I installed smoke detectors, painted and installed railings, and was able to talk to the homeowners about their experiences. I hope to participate in a block build in the fall; I think it would be an even more rewarding experience as an OT student with the knowledge of assessing homes and taking an occupational profile.”

Going forward, Grasso plans to volunteer at every Block Build with at least three OT fieldwork students. If you are interested in learning more or volunteering with RTP, visit rebuildingphilly.org/volunteer.

Participants group photo