top occupational therapy volunteer opportunities

Top Occupational Therapy Volunteer Opportunities

Getting more involved in the occupational therapy world can not only be fulfilling but also a lot of fun! Whether you’re just beginning to consider OT as a career or you’re knee-deep in an OT program and loving every minute of it, there are so many occupational therapy volunteer opportunities that you can take advantage of to expand your knowledge. Volunteering prior to applying to OT school will also help you gain a competitive advantage over applicants that haven’t volunteered, as it is not a requirement to apply.

Occupational therapy programs are by nature “generalist,” which means occupational therapists graduate with basic experience in all areas. This is a good thing, since there is a lot to choose from. OTs can be found in a range of practice areas, so there are many places where prospective and current students can get the hands-on experience they want.

We know it can be overwhelming to narrow your options down, but it works best if you can identify a few areas of early interest to explore and see if you like them. That being said, we’ll cover some of our favorite OT volunteer opportunities along with some general tips to know to get started.

First: Occupational Therapy Volunteering vs. Shadowing

Many occupational therapy programs require shadowing occupational therapists in a few settings to get a sense of what the field is like before applying to or entering an OT graduate program. Occupational therapy shadowing refers to following and observing an OT who is currently practicing in an area you are interested in. This helps students and OT school applicants learn what the day-to-day life of a practicing occupational therapist is like, from treating patients to writing notes to attending meetings. This is different from volunteering as we’ll explain a bit more below:

Shadowing occupational therapists gives people a tangible idea of whether they want to pursue a career in occupational therapy. No two days are exactly alike in healthcare. For this reason, shadowing is most beneficial when done over a period of a week or more. This helps someone get a realistic idea of how days in a clinic typically flow. Most programs require around 40 hours of shadowing to be completed alongside their application, although it is recommended to get more than the required hours to have a competitive advantage.

Volunteering, on the other hand, has a much broader lens. Volunteering for the purposes of occupational therapy doesn’t have to relate specifically to OT. In fact, many great occupational therapy volunteer roles give applicants and students a chance to see how entire healthcare teams work synergistically together. This is an important dynamic for people to see, since being part of a larger team is a crucial part of any therapist’s job, no matter what setting they practice in.

What Can You Do as a Volunteer?

Rehabilitation Aide

Depending on where you are located, you may assume this role as a volunteer or as a paid employee! Rehab aides, and occupational therapy aides, are assistants within healthcare departments typically found in hospitals or skilled nursing facilities.

They are not to be confused with occupational therapy assistants (COTAs) or physical therapy assistants (PTAs), which are separate degree programs entirely. Rehab aides serve as support to the rehab team and assist with the basic treatment duties of a therapist.

Responsibilities may include:

  • Getting patients started on exercise bikes
  • Making and administering patients’ daily therapy schedules
  • Preparing and adjusting heating pads or ice packs for patients
  • Cleaning equipment
  • Replenishing supplies
  • Doing inventory logs
  • Checking and adjusting temperatures of hydrocollators (devices that keep heat packs warm)
  • Setting up therapy rooms and other treatment spaces
  • Ordering supplies
  • Assisting with patient transport to and from therapy sessions

Rehab aides not only get hands-on experience doing some of the basic, non-skilled duties of a therapist, but they also get to observe therapists in action. So it’s doubly beneficial for people who are interested in entering the field of occupational therapy (or physical therapy)!

For more information about rehab aides, check out our article, Occupational Therapy Aide vs. Rehab Aide: What’s the Difference?

Camp Counselor

Some high school or college students may have volunteered at summer or day camps as a counselor. Standard camp settings are a good way to get experience working with a pediatric population, but camps for those with disabilities are an even better way to get acquainted with kids who have a range of abilities and needs.

occupational therapy volunteer opportunities

Whether you are a counselor at a standard camp or one for those with disabilities, this role will involve:

  • Being attentive to group needs
  • Instructing and leading activities
  • Using creativity to develop and plan programming
  • Offering one-on-one emotional support
  • Resolving conflicts
  • Managing behaviors
  • Ensuring for the safety of others
  • Adhering to camp rules
  • Providing encouragement for campers

Each of these responsibilities offers a large amount of preparation for being an occupational therapist. Volunteering at camps is another great opportunity to get hands-on experience working with individuals who have unique needs to account for.

Become a Member of Disability Rights Group

You’ve probably heard of at least one disability rights group. They exist for nearly every common (and many rare) conditions. Some examples are:

Many of these foundations hold events such as fundraisers, walks, educational seminars, meetings, outings, legislative action days, and more. The opportunities involved with each role are often specific to the organization and the types of events it hosts. However, being part of these groups is such a great way to gain some of the following skills:

  • Learning about disabilities
  • Advocating for programming
  • Planning and leading events
  • Communicating with others
  • Working on teams
  • Managing time
  • Gaining increased empathy and compassion for others

Browsing each group’s website and reaching out for more information is the best way to learn how you can get involved. Many of these groups are large and nationally-based, meaning they will often have local chapters surrounding major cities. This gives volunteers the chance to help a major organization with grassroots efforts.

Teacher’s Aide

For those who are interested in working with children or in a school setting, this is a terrific volunteer opportunity. Teacher’s aides, also known as paraprofessionals, can be found in standard schools or daycares and assist teachers with their daily duties. Being a teacher’s aide can again be a volunteer opportunity or paid in some cases.

occupational therapy volunteer opportunities

This role includes some of the following responsibilities:

  • Setting up and operating classroom equipment
  • Supervising students, especially those with more intensive needs
  • Helping teachers run group activities
  • Grading assignments
  • Taking attendance
  • Obtaining resources for use during class

This is a good way to develop communication, patience, fostering growth, monitoring progress, encouraging others, and more. These are all foundational skills of a therapist, so this role offers worthwhile experience for anyone who is interested in the field!

Final Tips to Get Started with Volunteering

While some of these roles can be found by contacting specific organizations, others can be found by searching for hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, or schools in your area.

If you’re interested in getting more exposure to occupational therapy on a volunteer basis, there are a range of other ways to get involved. Some are roles similar to these, while others involve attending conferences and listening to OT podcasts.

Take advantage of all the resources at your disposal to learn more about this wonderful field and prepare you for entering (and succeeding in) an occupational therapy program!

If you’re already a practicing OT who wants to get involved with more volunteer work, we hope this also gave you some ideas.

Lastly: What occupational therapy volunteer opportunities did we miss? Let us know your favorites and any other volunteer tips you have in the comments below!

This post was originally published on June 10, 2021 and last updated on April 24, 2024.

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  • Tshepo moikanyane July 4, 2022   Reply →

    I’m interested in studying OT and would like know where I can shadow or volunteer around Soweto

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L July 10, 2022   Reply →

      Hi Tshepo, for shadowing hours, you can do a local Google search for occupational therapy clinics and reach out to them directly for observation hours and/or volunteer options. Best of luck!

  • ayan November 30, 2022   Reply →

    Hey, my name is Ayan, and when I graduate from high school, I plan to pursue ot as a career. I’d love to volunteer and gain experience.

  • Lghazaleh Seyed mahmoudi January 8, 2023   Reply →

    My name is Ghazaleh seyed mahmoudi. I have BA in psychology. I’m interested in OT field and
    I want to be part of the team as a volunteer member . Please let me know your availability. I would love to

  • Dolores Dixon October 27, 2023   Reply →

    My name is Dolores Dixon. I have been a COTA for 6 yrs now, I’m interested in volunteering and supporting my community. I would love to assist in a shelter or jail?

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L October 29, 2023   Reply →

      Hi Dolores, volunteering in either of those would be very helpful, I’m sure! I would just start with reaching out to shelters and correctional facilities near you to see what would benefit them and go from there.

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