Top Occupational Therapy Volunteer Opportunities
Getting more involved in the occupational therapy world can be a lot of fun! Whether you’re just beginning to consider OT as a career or you’re knee-deep in a program and loving every minute of it, there are many occupational therapy volunteer opportunities that you can take advantage of to expand your knowledge.
Occupational therapy programs are by nature “generalist,” which means providers 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 opportunities along with some general tips to know to get started.
First: Occupational Therapy Volunteering vs. Shadowing
Many occupational therapy programs recommend shadowing and even volunteering to get a sense of what the field is like before applying to or entering a 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 therapist is like, from treating patients to writing notes to attending meetings.
Shadowing gives someone 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 good 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 a therapist’s job, no matter what setting they practice in.
What Can You Do as a Volunteer?
Depending on where you are located, you may assume this role as a volunteer or as a paid employee! Rehab aides are assistants within healthcare departments typically found in hospitals or skilled nursing facilities.
They are not to be confused with occupational therapy or physical therapy assistants, 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
- 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)!
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.
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
Each of these responsibilities offers a large amount of preparation for being a therapist. This 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:
- Best Buddies (for children and adolescents with intellectual and developmental disabilities)
- JDRF (for children and adolescents with Juvenile Diabetes)
- Wounded Warrior Project (for veterans who were wounded in the service)
- Autism Society (for children and adults with Autism)
- United Cerebral Palsy (for children and adults with Cerebral Palsy)
- The Arc (for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities)
- Special Olympics (for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities)
- Easter Seals (for children and adults with a range of disabilities)
- Epilepsy Foundation (for children and adults with recurrent seizures)
- Adaptive Sports Foundation (for children and adults with physical disabilities)
- NAMI (for children and adults with mental illness)
- National Federation of the Blind (for children and adults with visual impairments)
- Alzheimer’s Association (for adults and older adults with dementia)
- United Spinal Association (for children and adults with spinal cord injuries)
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 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
- 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 have local chapters surrounding major cities. This gives volunteers the chance to help a major organization with grassroots efforts.
For those who are interested in working with children or in a school setting, this is a great 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.
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 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!
And 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!