Alanna Raffel’s father told her to follow her dreams when he dropped her off at the University of Maryland in 2005. So she became a dance major.
Raffel soon realized how hard it is find a job as a dancer, though, and added a psychology major. She graduated in 2009, and, after a six-month internship in Israel, enrolled at Thomas Jefferson University to study occupational therapy.
She got her master’s degree in 2013, and has worked in the field ever since. In recent years she’s focused her attention on inclusion and accessibility for children with disabilities, so as to ensure that people with disabilities feel welcome in activities regardless of their capabilities.
Q: How did you start working with children with disabilities?
A: I grew up going to a sleepaway camp in the Poconos, Camp Harlam. I went there every summer, from when I was 10. The first summer I was a counselor, a child with autism ended up at camp. Now Harlam does a lot of inclusion work and has more resources, but this was back in 2004 before any of that stuff was happening. This camper showed up at camp, had some language, not a lot, but some. They needed a lot of help with self-care. This was my first experience working with someone with autism. We all had to figure out what to do and how to help him throughout the summer. Next year I went back to camp and there were no kids with autism and I was disappointed. That’s how I learned I should work with kids with autism.
The summer after that I worked at a camp with kids for disabilities: Camp Daisy. That’s when I started seeing occupational therapy for the first time. That set me on that path.
Q: What did you do after college?
A: After I graduated from Maryland, I was not ready to be a person yet fully. I did a MASA Israel program in Tel Aviv for about six months. … I wasn’t fully committed to occupational therapy, but I shadowed some occupational therapists there. It was the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled.
Q: Next you went to Jefferson. What was that experience like?
A: It was the best. I didn’t have the quintessential college experience at Maryland, and so grad school, for me, was what I wanted. A lot of people were on my wavelength, and I also desperately loved Philadelphia, and to live at 10th and Walnut was such a treat.
Q: What do you do now?
A: I work in charter schools now. I work with elementary school kids and some kindergarten kids, mostly K-5, as a school occupational therapist. I’m also focused on helping kids do the things they need to do to participate in school, so basically the goal of OT is to help people participate in life. My first job out of school was in a rehab hospital working with people who’ve had strokes and brain injuries. In that capacity [I was] helping school kids do things they need to do everyday, whether it be writing a sentence, cutting a circle, being able to sit in a chair for five minutes of time. For older kids, can you write your homework in a planner and do your homework? Basically anything you need to do to be a successful student. It varies but the goal stays the same: participation.
Q: And you also do accessibility work?
A: Over the past two years, I’ve continued to work full-time as a therapist. I also spend a lot of time working in the inclusion and accessibility world. I work to help [theaters, schools and non-profits] to include more inclusive programming, so my clients can participate regardless if they change or “get better.”
I’ve also started to work with some people who do that work in the Jewish community as well. For example, I just finished a week of programming, training teenagers to be supportive in Hebrew school classrooms. They work with students in the classroom who might have learning disorders. l
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