More Than a Therapist

When Adriana Mazzarese was young, her father was in a serious accident that required him to undergo occupational and physical therapy. She accompanied him often to these appointments, watching as her father regained independence with each session.

“It was inspiring to see,” Mazzarese said. “I thought it was so interesting how the OT used everyday activities to help my dad with his impairment.”

Mazzarese is now a second-year student in Gannon’s Occupational Therapy Doctorate program at the Ruskin campus, studying to become a professional in the same field that helped her father. Yet, Mazzarese knows that there are changes to be made for future therapists like her to provide the best professional care possible.

As vice president of Ruskin’s Student Occupational Therapy Association, or SOTA, she’s joined efforts to advocate for this change through improved legislation.

Breanna Flaherty, president of SOTA, is also engaged in these efforts.

Members of Ruskin's Student Occupational Therapy Association Katie Ernst (Left) and Terell Kane (Right) with a House member (Middle).

“I ran for president because I wanted to be the change I wished to see,” Flaherty said. “Joining SOTA has opened my eyes to the world of possibilities in the profession of occupational therapy at both the national and state level.”

This November, members of SOTA traveled to Tallahassee, Fla. to participate in Hill Day. This three-day advocacy event is an opportunity for grassroots advocates to contact their legislators, engage with American Occupational Therapy Association staff, learn about legislative priorities and the congressional process, and hear from members of Congress.

“The purpose of (this year’s) Hill Day is to attempt to change the legislation of the scope of practice for occupational therapy for the first time in 20 years,” Flaherty said. “This was a really big deal, because as soon-to-be occupational therapists, this change would affect how we go on to practice in the state of Florida.”

Students celebrating OT month

Students celebrate National Occupational Therapy Month.

Maggie Rutkowski ’19, SOTA’s assembly of student delegates representative, said this year’s Hill Day focused on working with legislation in the House and Senate to review the current scope of practice for occupational therapists in Florida and to advocate for mental health services to be included under the practice of occupational therapy. 

Flaherty said the group was able to join Florida Occupational Therapy Association representatives and a lobbyist to advocate to senators and representatives for need of the proposed bill. They also networked with representatives and FOTA government affairs teams and attended a senate committee meeting to discuss current mental health services in Florida.

"I'm very excited about my career. ...I want to advocate for myself to become the best OT I can be for my patients, and these legislations can directly impact that." - Adriana Mazzarese

“When OT was first founded, we focused on treating mental health,” Mazzarese said. “Somewhere in our history we strayed from these foundations. We are now recognizing where we came from and advocating for our place in mental health.”

“Many people do not understand what we do or how we do it. The newly updated scope of practice clearly and consciously describes what OT does and why it is beneficial,” Mazzarese said.

The Student Occupational Therapy Association was launched at Gannon’s Ruskin campus six years ago to promote the profession of occupational therapy throughout the school and community. The organization encourages support among classmates, positive interactions with faculty, and meaningful education and involvement in the surrounding community in a professional manner.

SOTA’s assembly of student delegates and State Liaison Emili Alexander are responsible for communicating about what is happening at the state and national level and coordinated Gannon students’ participation at this year’s Hill Day.

Dianna Lunsford, OTD MEd. OTRL CHT, associate professor and program director of the Occupational Therapy Doctorate program at Gannon, said student advocacy is important in understanding legislative decision-making processes.

 Student Maggie Rutkowski ’19 joins legislators for Hill Day

Student Maggie Rutkowski ’19 joins legislators for Hill Day

“The primary focus of our advocacy is to uphold the rights of our clients, make sure clients can access services, and advocate for change for our clients in environments that don’t allow them to participate,” Lunsford said. “At the end of the day, what we’re really looking for is for our clients to be able to engage and participate in their desired and required occupations. It’s important for students to understand what we need to do to be a part of the decision-making process or to influence the process, and that’s what Hill Day really did for the students.”

Mazzarese said we should all be advocating for things that directly impact us.

“I’m very excited about my career. ...I want to advocate for myself to become the best OT I can be for my patients, and these legislations can directly impact that,” Mazzarese said.

By Brianna Mariotti, marketing and content strategist

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