Recreation Therapist at Helen Hayes Hospital
Melissa Urena Castillo has had an affinity for the arts since childhood—she played the violin, sang in chorus, and danced in her middle school’s production of Lion King. At St. Thomas Aquinas College, Melissa learned to paint, one of her most treasured memories of her years at STAC.
“Professor Yontz gave me the support to submit my art pieces to the student art show, allowed me to collaborate with her, and instilled in me my love of painting,” says Melissa.
Although she started out at STAC as a Psychology major, Melissa changed her mind when she saw a bulletin board with information about the Therapeutic Recreation program. “Becoming a Recreation Therapist has been a perfect fit,” she says, it has enabled Melissa to combine her hobbies and interests with helping others.
“The most rewarding thing about my career is seeing the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits Recreation Therapy has for my patients,” Melissa says. “Watching my patients meet their goals and exceed them makes me feel grateful to be doing what I do.”
Day to day, Melissa works with people who have sustained traumatic brain injuries, cardiac/pulmonary diseases, medical deconditioning, knee and hip replacements, and other orthopedic issues. As a result, many experience cognitive impairments, decreased strength and endurance, and depression and anxiety, among other challenges.
Depending on their individual needs, Melissa develops individual treatment plans and charts her patients’ weekly progress. These may include sequencing activities, such as having a patient organize cards in numerical order if a patient exhibits difficulty following directions. For patients coping with depression, a treatment plan might include participating in their favorite activities, group programming, meditation, performing arts, and pet therapy.
“Being able to help patients engage in their hobbies and interests, and also create new hobbies and interests solidifies my career choice every day,” she says. “I am very happy to do what I do and the best part is that I have fun doing it, too.”
Melissa credits her STAC education, and specifically, the course she took at Dowling Gardens for giving her the knowledge and tools to work with the geriatric population. Taking that course with her professor, Dr. Levine Madori taught Melissa to collect research, lead two programs, and engage in activities with the over-65 residents at Dowling Gardens.