The Transformative Power of Occupational Therapy: My Fellowship with Rebuilding Together

May 31, 2024
by Taylor Ross, Howard University Occupational Therapy Fellow at Rebuilding Together Charleston

As a first-year Occupational Therapy doctoral (OTD) student at Howard University, my fellowship experience with Rebuilding Together in West Virginia was nothing short of a whirlwind. Packed into three days were experiences that provided me with invaluable insights that have profoundly shaped my understanding of occupational therapy's role in promoting not only aging in place, but also health and well-being. 

Partnered with Rebuilding Together Charleston, I had the privilege of witnessing firsthand the transformative power of their work. Led by Allison Brill, the dedicated executive director of Rebuilding Together Charleston, and her team, I delved into the heart of Rebuilding Together’s mission—repairing homes, revitalizing communities and rebuilding lives. 

Charleston, WV, situated within the Appalachian Mountains and along the Kanawha River, is stunning but also experiences distinctive challenges, particularly concerning home safety and accessibility. With homes perched on hillsides overlooking the river, the potential for natural disasters such as mudslides can cause critical damages. Rebuilding Together Charleston plays a significant role, providing crucial home modifications to improve residents' quality of life and promote community resilience, with a focus on those with low-income, veterans, people with disabilities, older adults or families with children. Serving Kanawha and Putnam counties, the small yet dedicated team covers over 1,200 square miles of land. 

During my trip, I visited various neighborhoods of Charleston, including the historic district, east side, south hills and west side, before delving into the hollers and rural regions within the service area. These experiences provided me with prospective into the cultural divide, community dynamics and challenges faced by residents. From intimate home visits to tours of the natural wonders, each opportunity deepened my understanding of the relationship between individuals and their environment, highlighting the interconnectedness that shapes their daily lives. 

When you think of West Virginia, you think of the mining industry. Interacting with the local population, particularly those within the coal mining community, was a humbling experience. The unique occupation, coupled with years of hard work, has taken a toll on their health and well-being. Witnessing their resilience and spirit firsthand reinforced the importance of my studies in occupational therapy—to empower individuals to overcome barriers and reclaim agency in their lives. 

During my time in Charleston, it became clear that there is a significant opportunity for a more presence of occupational therapists (OTs) and occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) to complement the impactful work already underway at Rebuilding Together Charleston. The leadership team, inclusive of a retired physician and physical therapist, has laid a strong foundation for community initiatives. However, there's support from Allison, the executive director, to round out the support with an OT presence. The holistic perspective that OTs and OTAs bring to patient care serves as the missing link, effectively bridging gaps and fostering comprehensive care. For instance, while Rebuilding Together does commendable work in fall prevention by installing grab bars, railings, ramps and porch repairs, an OT can elevate these efforts by advocating for individual needs, providing tailored solutions and empowering individuals to age in place with dignity. By leveraging their expertise and collaborative approach, OTs and OTAs have the potential to further enhance the safety and well-being of Charleston's residents, ensuring a more holistic and sustainable impact on the community. 

Looking ahead, I cannot help but feel excitement for Allison and the team's vision coming to life. Partnering with occupational therapy programs and possibly trade school programs could be the game-changer Charleston needed. By pooling resources and expertise, I’m excited for the expansion and impact in Charleston.  

This experience was transformative and pushed me beyond my comfort zone. It wasn't just about textbooks and lectures; it was about rolling up my sleeves, connecting with real people and making a tangible difference in their lives. Ultimately, my fellowship experience in Charleston was a reminder of the resilience within communities and the opportunity to rebuild, reclaim and thrive. As a future occupational therapy practitioner, I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of this work.  

Rebuilding Together's Howard University Fellowship program was made possible through a Rural Capacity Building grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). We are thankful for HUD's commitment to affordable housing and community development activities in rural areas.