Employee Spotlight: Gretchen Ward

Gretchen Ward is Grafton’s Consult and Liaison Occupational Therapist. In recognition of World OT Day, we thought hearing directly from Gretchen would not only be timely, but fascinating!

Why did you want to work in behavioral healthcare?

I took the long way around. I planned to be a doctor – I was always interested in health and science and how the brain works. In addition, I knew I wanted to work with kids. As an occupational therapist (OT) I get to look at how everything works together.

I volunteered at a hospital as a pre-med student and saw that doctors didn’t have enough one-to-one time with the patients. But while working with the OT, I was able to do things like help a baby roll over for the first time; things I would not have had the ability to do as a physician. I saw it as a problem solving profession. That was powerful and helped me make the decision to change my path and pursue becoming an OT.

What is your background? What type of training have you received?

Between college and grad school, I spent four years substitute teaching in a local high school with a lot of time in the specialized education department. I never thought I would work in a school full time, because I was very medically oriented. But while receiving a scholarship to Columbia, I once again changed my career path. I was required to work in public school system afterward. And while I was doing that, I discovered that I really enjoyed the mental health side of things as well.

Columbia provided a lot of opportunities to explore various aspects of OT. While doing my fieldwork, I was placed at a homeless men’s shelter for individuals with histories of substance abuse and mental illness. I was able to start programs up and run groups. I saw a different side of OT outside of a traditional practice and had a newfound passion for mental health.

I also did a pediatric placement in Trinidad and Tobago, working for a U.S.-trained OT at a special needs school. She started her own OT practice there, building a clinic from the ground up. There were a lot of diagnoses in the Caribbean that you don’t see in the states, not to mention such a high need. The clinic at which I worked was the only place for pediatric occupational therapy on either island and served not only the children with special needs, but also their families. It was a really interesting view of OT in an emerging area. I got invaluable experience; it really helped me to get where I am today.

Membership in my professional organizations has also helped me grow as a therapist. I have had the opportunity to attend multiple continuing education conferences and participate in professional networks to build my capacity as an OT in this emerging area of practice. Through Grafton, I have also had an opportunity to present at a few conferences to share my learning with others. I don’t think I will ever stop seeking opportunities to grow as a therapist.

Why are Grafton’s clients unique?

Every student I have worked with has made significant progress in his or her time at Grafton. In the past, I’ve worked with similar students in various settings over the same amount of time and I have not witnessed the type of progress people are able to make here.

I think part of the reason for that is the multidisciplinary team and coordination of care. That is a key difference in working at Grafton rather than in a traditional school setting. At a traditional school, services often get splintered. A student may get psychiatric help outside of school, but we wouldn’t know what’s happening necessarily unless a parent chose to share that information. Within a traditional school setting, you are limited in what you can do.

What makes Grafton a special place to work?

Grafton is always looking to become a better version of itself. Honestly, it’s pretty impressive. The organization is always asking, “What’s the next thing we can do in behavioral healthcare?” Ukeru and the elimination of restraint initiative are great examples of that. There is a lot of opportunity for program development. When I suggest ideas or new programs, no one has ever said no to me. It is nice to work in an environment that is so supportive of new ideas.

I am also able to share OT with people who wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity. I’ve seen direct service providers at Grafton become a lot more empowered by understanding that part of their job is to help make students more independent. It’s a win for the students and for the team supporting them.

What makes Grafton’s approach person-centered?

From an OT perspective, everything is person-centered. There is no one size fits all. We look at their occupational profile: What are the roles that are important to them? What is their cultural context?

In addition, because the multidisciplinary team makes frequent assessments, it’s easier to change the plan to make it more person-centered. In a traditional school setting, you create the individualized education plan (IEP) and go back and assess it once a year. It makes it a lot more difficult to initiate changes as a team. At Grafton, the lines of communication are already open and those conversations are happening all the time. We can typically make the changes we need to pretty rapidly.

What does utilizing a trauma informed approach mean to you? How does it affect your work?

Trauma informed care is an emerging practice across the board. When I started at Grafton, I wasn’t familiar with it. Then I underwent the organization’s orientation. It has impacted the way I approach clients. Not only do I talk about it with everyone with whom I work, I also share it with my professional OT networks. I kind of feel like I am paying it forward; I learned about it from Grafton, and now I’m sharing it with others.

I find that I now think about it everywhere in my life. I think about how people’s experiences impact them and how the events of your past affect the way your brain works. Using a trauma informed approach positively impacts all interactions – professional and personal.

Do you have a favorite story from your time at Grafton?

There are so many of them. One that comes to mind immediately, though, is a client with whom I am currently working. When we first starting working together, he would indicate that he needed space by aggressing. But now he communicates his need for a break by saying something like, “I need more time to calm down” Over the past couple of months, I have seen him turn into his own advocate. That is significant progress for this individual.

But there are so many stories; stories of kids who, when they came to Grafton, were very distant and not connecting with anyone. Then, you see them start to connect with staff and make eye contact and communicate. You see that spark and the untapped potential that no one’s been able to access before.

I also like seeing how the OTs at Grafton have become an amazing team. It can be isolating when you are the only therapist in your location and you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of. The OTs at Grafton, across all of the facilities, talk to each other regularly. We have serve as a great network and resource for one another.

What would you say to someone who is considering working at Grafton?

It’s a great place to learn. You will see things you wouldn’t see elsewhere. It’s definitely challenging, but if you’re up for the challenge, it can be a very rewarding experience. There is a huge opportunity for growth.

I really do love working at Grafton, in all the different areas. I learn something new every day and that’s what you want – to go to work and learn something new.

What would you say to a family considering Grafton for their child?

There is no place that I know of where they will get this kind of intensive level of support for their child. In addition, Grafton wants to partner with parents so that they have ownership in the process. The care their child will receive will set them up to be more successful and independent in life.