Upward Mobility

Kelly Brush knows some of the most important learning in her doctoral physical therapy program takes place far beyond the classroom or late-night study sessions in the library.

By Laura Merisalo

Adaptive Abilities Club members Kelly Brush and Zach Hodgson helped disabled participants scale the rock-climbing wall.

Kelly Brush, in her fifth year of the six-year program, is president of the Adaptive Abilities Club, which brings students together to help people with disabilities rock climb, water-ski, downhill ski, scuba dive, fish, cycle and play sports such as rugby, basketball and sled hockey.

During the club’s first outdoor climb this year, people confined to wheelchairs scaled cliffs at Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo, Wis. On the weekend trip, Brush says Dr. Tina Stoeckmann, the club’s faculty adviser, told her, “I’m so happy you girls are out here for the weekend helping others and really learning about these people.”

The origins of the club are organic. Stoeckmann, clinical associate professor of physical therapy, says some of her students learned of her volunteer work with adaptive abilities organizations a few years ago and wanted to get involved. She invited those who expressed interest to the events, and their interest ballooned into the club.

“Everyone goes home happy, you’re re-energized when you’re done, and I think that’s what pulls people in,” Stoeckmann says.

The Adaptive Abilities Club is open to all students, not just those in the physical therapy program. It differs from other student clubs, Stoeckmann says, as it doesn’t sponsor events but supports outside organizations. Among them are Adaptive Adventures and Diveheart, a Chicago-based adaptive scuba organization that expanded its events to Milwaukee in 2016, at Marquette’s pools, because of the club.

“This was their baby. They wrote the proposal. They got the pool. And they also provided deck help,” says Sarah Repka, an adaptive scuba instructor. “The (Adaptive) Abilities Club wrote the grant to pay for us to have three hours in the water.

“It’s nice to be around dedicated, good people,” Repka says.

Marquette’s physical therapy program is difficult to get into and to succeed in. It has as many as 1,600 applicants annually for its 65 slots, and the average ACT score is 30.6, Stoeckmann says. Once enrolled in the program, she says, students are in class about 24 hours a week, and classes with labs often have written and oral exams, which can translate to as many as nine final exams a semester.

Brush and others, however, don’t see the club as extra work. They say it is fun, stress-relieving and invigorating.

On a trip to Devil’s Lake State Park, Marquette’s Adaptive Abilities club took those with disabilites out of the wheelchair and up the face of a cliff.

“To get off campus, to help them get to the top of that rock-climbing wall, I come back just feeling rejuvenated and refreshed and ready to learn more,” Brush says. “I know there are people out there who really need me.”

That club members are changing lives through their volunteer efforts, however, isn’t something they dwell on. Rather, what seems to resonate most is how their involvement is changing them.

Zach Hodgson’s passion for skiing drew him to the club as a sophomore. “I just really wanted to share that passion with the population that we work with.”

It was only a matter of time before he started volunteering at the club’s rock-climbing events twice a month at Adventure Rock in Brookfield, Wis., and fishing events in the summer.

Hodgson graduated in May with a career goal different than the dream job he initially envisioned. His original plan was to pair his passion for skiing with a career that focused on helping skiers who were injured or disabled get back on the slopes.

Today, because of his experiences with the club and, particularly, with Abigail and Cate Johnson — two girls whose wheelchairs don’t keep them from rock climbing, playing soccer and other sports — Hodgson has other plans.

For more information on how to join the Adaptive Abilities Club visit go.mu.edu/Adaptive-Club

Abigail, 17, and Cate, 14, both have undiagnosed physical and developmental disabilities and are nonverbal. But they and Hodgson communicate just fine, he says.

“I know the little microtones of their voice,” Hodgson says. “Everyone has their own special form of communication, and if you can learn that, you can really enhance … (your) physical therapy practice.”

Cate and Abigail’s parents, Mike and Crystal, say Hodgson and other Marquette students add brilliance to their daughters’ lives.

“When (our daughters) see the energy that these Marquette students bring, it lights up their world,” Crystal says.

The club, Mike says, embodies the Marquette motto: Be The Difference. “That kind of activity, that’s a difference- maker, when they’re at Marquette and beyond,” he says.

But Hodgson credits the Johnson family with making a difference in his life. Hodgson now plans to focus his physical therapy practice on pediatrics.

“Skiing will always be a part of my life, but it will not play as much of a role in my physical therapy direction,” Hodgson says. “I really want to work with families or patients who have developmental disabilities that really need that continuum of care throughout their lives, as well as the support and understanding that these children can go out and have normal lives.”

Brush also plans to pursue a different path because of the club. She grew up a competitive Scottish dancer and had plenty of physical therapy experience as an injured athlete. That experience drew her into the program, to work with dancers. Then, she joined the Adaptive Abilities Club.

“I fell in love with it after the first time,” Brush says. “If you think of someone who can’t walk on their own … to see that anything is possible, it has definitely changed me.”

Brush now has her eye on neurologic physical therapy.

“PT is so much more than helping athletes,” she says. “It is helping give back self-dignity and basic life skills. Physical therapy helps people live their lives.”

The Adaptive Abilities club is partnered with the Milwaukee Iron wheelchair rugby team, and coordinates scrimmages with students.

The club is in its third year and swiftly growing, says senior Megan Rapacz, who joined as a freshman and now is vice president. The club’s email list is about 140 students, she says, and there are up to 80 active volunteers. In its second year, the club earned the Rev. Robert A. Wild, S.J., Spirit of Marquette Award.

“You can learn about empathy, and learn the words, but to actually do it is totally different,” Rapacz says. “I’m making someone else’s life more fun and meaningful.”

When she first became involved with the club, Rapacz says, “I saw it as these people are so inspirational and they are doing something great, (but) they are just living their lives.”

Rapacz says her goal is to open a day care for both children with disabilities and able-bodied children to promote at an early age an acceptance of diversity in physical abilities. Her experiences through the club helped shape her future plans.

Adapted from the 2017 issue of Marquette Health Sciences, the annual magazine of the Marquette University College of Health Sciences. Read the entire issue, including the cover story on Marquette alumni bridging medicine science with service, by clicking the image above.