College of Saint Mary student A’Leah Davis helps a Stephen Center resident as she exercises with a resistance band on Aug. 31. Davis and two other occupational therapy students, Audrea Severe and Becca Meyer, have been working at the homeless shelter as part of a clinical rotation. Instructor Kylie Widhelm has been overseeing them. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF


College of Saint Mary students bring occupational therapy to homeless shelter

Marlis Soltani’s physical strength and flexibility, as well as her confidence, have surged in the past few months.

She’s making better food choices, exercising regularly and learning other life skills.

As a result, Soltani said, she’s lost 60 pounds, is seeing more of her neighbors and keeping her health problems at bay.

What prompted the changes?

Soltani – who lives in a transitional apartment at the Stephen Center homeless shelter in Omaha – met Kylie Widhelm, an occupational therapy instructor from the College of Saint Mary in Omaha, and three of her students: Audrea Severe, A’Leah Davis and Becca Meyer.

For several weeks the students and their teacher have been providing individualized assessments and therapy as well as group classes for shelter residents, many of whom have disabilities.

“I love these guys,” Soltani said. “I have health issues. I just don’t want any more.”

The College of Saint Mary – led by its president, Sister Maryanne Stevens – and the Stephen Center developed a partnership earlier this summer, establishing more collaboration between the two institutions.

That effort began with the occupational department creating a clinical rotation at the homeless shelter for fifth-year students who are about to graduate. From there, the college hopes to further involve other academic departments and extend more services to Stephen Center residents.


The collaboration has worked well so far, said Beth Ellis, community engagement manager at the Stephen Center, who also is a student at College of Saint Mary and a former resident in the shelter’s dual mental health and alcohol and drug addiction treatment program.

College of Saint Mary has a culture that begins with building relationships, Ellis said. That culture is being shared as students get to know their clients at the Stephen Center, working 40 hours a week at the shelter during their rotation.

“Being a student at College of Saint Mary’s, I fell in love with their culture and its connectedness and its support,” she said. “So I get to see these OT (occupational therapy) students from College of Saint Mary’s here on our campus with that same culture in areas where there may not have been as much connectedness.”

Relationships help the therapists build trust, determine needs and help people to become more independent, Widhelm and her students said.

Serving the wider community is part of the college’s Christian mission and vision, the instructor said, and leaders such as Ellis have helped align the similar goals of the shelter and the college.

Residents and staff at the Stephen Center have welcomed the support.

“I feel like it’s been so well received because we’ve had gaps in our programming here at the Stephen Center,” Ellis said.

As an emergency shelter, the Stephen Center’s main goal is housing, she said, but there are deeper needs. The College of Saint Mary’s occupational therapists assess residents and offer treatment that will help keep them from becoming homeless again, Ellis said.


The therapy covers a wide swath of physical and mental health issues and includes skills such as budgeting, housekeeping, cooking, parenting, career guidance, leisure activities, medication management and transportation.

The age of the people treated at Stephen Center runs the gamut, from infants to the elderly.

“We not only address the individual, but we address the family to make sure the family unit is successful,” Widhelm said.

“Our ultimate goal is that these individuals will be successful in the community so that we don’t have to see them come back and need that emergency shelter again,” she said.

Some of the older women who live in transitional apartments at the shelter had tended to isolate themselves, Ellis said. But now she’s seeing them involved in exercise classes and more. The therapists build relationships and encourage those women through their hardships, she said.

“Now we have these young, vibrant girls on our campus who are creating this culture of let’s get out of our apartments, let’s have fun,” Ellis said. “That culture has already improved our campus.”

“I think relationship is truly where it starts.”

Charlotte Anderson, a resident in the shelter’s addiction program, has had multiple surgeries on her back, knees and shoulders. The occupational therapists have been helping her with exercises to strengthen those areas and ways to help her deal with pain, she said.

Classes, including one that focused on career goals, keep her mind busy and help her from falling back into bad habits, Anderson said.


Davis, one of the occupational therapy students, said people might try to stigmatize the homeless, seeing them as lazy or less than human. Working with them, she said, she sees the underlying issues, such as trauma or drug and alcohol abuse.

Meyer, another student, agreed.

“I think just hearing their stories has been the biggest thing, and realizing these are things that could happen to anyone,” she said. “It’s a lot of unfortunate events.”

Some people grew up in dysfunctional homes and never learned basic skills, such as cooking, cleaning or parenting, the therapists said. Some have lived on the streets for decades.

“So we just come along beside them and help them use whatever tools to help them become successful,” Widhelm said.

“There’s a statistic that at least 52% of the homeless population have a disability, whether it’s physical or psychological,” she said. “But I could say that it feels like even more than 52% here.”

The occupational therapists’ job, Widhelm said, is “addressing any of those needs, any of those disabilities.”

Severe, Davis and Meyer will  move on from their rotation, and a new group of occupational therapy students will begin at the Stephen Center. 

Severe said she would like to pursue a career helping pediatric or mental health patients. Davis said she hopes to help children or the elderly, while Meyer said she hopes to specialize in sensory intervention for children, a way of treating them by stimulating their senses.

Widhelm, meanwhile, will stay on year round at the Stephen Center to provide guidance for more rounds of students.

The lessons they learn from the homeless are invaluable, she said.

“I think we’re getting just as much, if not more, out of this rotation than they are, to be honest,” Widhelm said. “Me included, by all means.”

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