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It’s a bright, sunny morning in central Phoenix for Alicia Gonzales, a 2005 alumna of Arizona State University's School of Community Resources and Development. Inside the Foundation for Senior Living’s (FSL) center, she watches as eight veterans and seven ASU students sit in pairs around tables arranged in a horseshoe shape. Individual arts and crafts projects are in front of each veteran.
A music box, a paint-by-numbers landscape and a laser-cut wooden helicopter are just some of the items the clients are assembling and painting as part of a biweekly group that gives them a chance to socialize and, in more clinical terms, exercise their fine and gross motor skills.
That, as it happens, is the genius of therapeutic recreation. It looks like fun and games — and it is — but it's with a purpose.
“Our job is to make sure that they know how to continue using the tools and the skills we are teaching them,” said Gonzales, FSL’s certified therapeutic recreational therapist. “Then they use those skills to come up with whatever they want, so we help through that process, which is pretty phenomenal. I think that's hard for some people to watch and not just do it for them.”
Gonzales discovered the field of recreational therapy at the age of 16 while working at a nursing home in high school.
“I saw this woman come into the home to engage the patients in games,” Gonzales said. “They had so much fun, and I thought ‘How do I do that?’”
When she learned that ASU had a therapeutic recreation major in the School of Community Resources and Development, enrolling was a no-brainer.
But that was just the beginning. Alicia was hardworking and began a job with Foundation for Senior Living while still in school. She attributes much of her success to her instructor, Kelly Ramella.
“When it comes to my schooling, Kelly is my mentor,” Gonzales said. “She is the person I look up to, and I hope to show her that I'm a good therapist.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I honestly adore Alicia,” Ramella said. “She is always willing to support our program."
“Her workplace is almost our 'lab' because we are always there. None of this would be possible without Alicia's commitment to ASU and student learning.”
Now, it’s Gonzales’ turn to pay it forward, or play it forward, as it were. For the last few years, she has worked closely with the School of Community Resources and Development to set up internships and class visits.
“I love it. It's a little more work for me, but I don't care about that,” Gonzales said. “For me, it's all about them.”
Gonzales has been a part of the FSL family for nineteen years, where she directs the therapeutic recreation program for more than 70 people each day at FSL's Adult Day Health Services Phoenix location. She also leads and mentors the therapeutic recreation staff at FSL's other two centers.
Gonzales has received several awards for her work over the years, including the 2015 RISE Award from Mercy Maricopa Integrated Care for her work in developing innovative approaches to working with individuals with mental illness.
There’s no question Gonzales loves her job. She exudes enthusiasm, positivity and genuine care in everything she does, and her interns feel it too.
“Alicia loves [her interns]. She helps them study and get through the internship process with as much success and as little pain as possible,” said Kyleigh Rubis, an FSL intern and a recreational therapy senior at ASU. “She's been so sweet, so helpful and so excited. The way she talks about her job and the way she talks about her clients is just really rewarding.”
Her approach is paying off. Of the seven interns she’s had so far, five have become certified recreational therapists. The other two are still in school working toward their certification.
“I make sure I tell them, ‘Don't be scared, but you're going to learn my job. Maybe you'll take my job one day or you're going to fly away and do something amazing at some other place,’” Gonzales said. “Because, one day I might leave and I want someone that takes my position to have those skills and not feel like they're held back — I want them to be successful.”
Playing that kind of role is important to Gonzales. She appreciates the education and the opportunities ASU gave her. And she values her relationship with the school and its students.
“I can't see myself anywhere else,” she said. “I also can't see myself working without our partnership with ASU. I feel like I need that partnership to make these kind of programs successful. Our interns are constantly bringing new, innovating ideas to the center.”