StudentApr 1, 2024Campus News
By: Grace Whittam '24

Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Flanagan '20, G'21

Alumna serves others as a pediatric occupational therapist.
Sarah Flanagan '20, G'21

By Grace Whittam '24

Sarah Flanagan ’20, G’21 of Northford, Connecticut, embarked on a journey to become a pediatric occupational therapist, a path marked by resilience, dedication and the pursuit of helping others. She now serves as a pediatric occupational therapist at Cheshire Fitness Zone in Cheshire, Connecticut, where she aids in building up children’s autonomy and confidence.

“I love witnessing the excitement when a child develops a new skill or level of independence and how that translates to what is meaningful to them at their stage of life,” Flanagan said.

From a young age, Flanagan felt a calling to work with people with disabilities. Her journey to this path started long before she first toured The University of Scranton. The affinity for helping others began when she was 14 at Camp Nerden, a special needs summer camp in Middlefield, Connecticut, which her guidance counselor recommended she check out in order to complete mandatory service hours set by her high school. 

“She had no idea what she recommended was something that would literally change my life,” Flanagan said.

By the end of the summer going into her sophomore year of high school, Flanagan had completed the recommended curriculum hours for her to graduate. Nevertheless, she continued to volunteer there year after year, and the summers at Camp Nerden became Flanagan’s favorite part of the year.

Transitioning from a volunteer to a staff member, Flanagan spent over a decade at Camp Nerden forming deep connections with campers. Both Flanagan and her sister have shown steadfast dedication to Camp Nerden and have formed relationships with campers that have changed their lives for the better – a testament to the love shared on the camp’s grounds.

“Camp is truly a place where people can come and fully be themselves. It is a place to feel free, seen, loved and supported – not just for campers, but for the staff as well,” Flanagan said.

The Flanagan sisters recently made a favored camper’s day by spending her birthday with her; their friendship, which began over a decade ago when the camper was five, was one of the formative experiences at Camp Nerden that helped inspire Flanagan’s decision to become an occupational therapist.

“At camp, I needed to utilize the resources available to create meaningful, motivating outdoor activities and adapt the activity accordingly for each group that came through with a variety of factors such as different ages and level of cognitive and physical ability,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan brought her passion for helping others with her as she started touring colleges. Upon visiting The University of Scranton, she fell in love with Leahy Hall’s occupational therapy labs.

“Especially in preparing for such a hands-on profession, I wanted to be able to apply what we were learning in our textbooks to real life scenarios and materials,” Flanagan said. 

But choosing Scranton was not just about academics for Flanagan. After attending a Catholic high school, she felt connected to the Jesuit values Scranton holds close to its core. Flanagan wanted to be on a campus that not only integrated these values into education, but also fostered them around the community.

She felt particularly connected to the Jesuit value of “cura personalis.” This value calls for “care of the whole person,” something Flanagan takes into her work every day and applies to every client interaction she has. She works to understand her patients’ values, beliefs, routines and roles, and she uses that knowledge as the foundation of their occupation profile.

“Occupational therapy is a holistic profession, so we treat more than just the symptoms we are presented with. Understanding the patient allows us to develop a full picture of who they are and how the entire person is impacted by the diagnosis or symptoms they are seeking therapy for,” Flanagan said.

While on campus, Flanagan was involved in many activities, including the Relay for Life Committee, Praise and Worship, Royal Signers and the Student Occupational Therapy Association; she also participated in many intramural sports, where she often achieved “smashing success.” Flanagan was a leader for the Manresa retreat and had on-campus jobs at the mail room and the Office of Admissions.

In a memorable assignment from an activity analysis course, Flanagan was tasked with filling a bag of 20 OT-based activities, staying within a $20 budget. This assignment altered Flanagan’s perspective and pushed her to think creatively about how one simple material can be applied to different physical, cognitive and social task areas.

“To this day I can look at a simple dollar store material like a pipe cleaner or bubble wrap and think of multiple ways it can be used to address goals,” Flanagan said.

This helped Flanagan become better attuned to her clients’ or students’ varying needs as she is prepared to respond to them anywhere from a fully-equipped therapy room to a utility closet with little to no materials provided.

“This has also helped to keep therapy sessions unique and interesting for my clients, as I am able to use the same materials in new, different ways throughout a plan of care,” Flanagan said.

After passing her National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, Flanagan has been working as a pediatric occupational therapist in an outpatient setting and elementary schools for almost two years, bringing the value of “cura personalis” to each patient she sees.

Beginning her mornings at one of three elementary schools, Flanagan helps students in special education functionally participate in curriculum expectations and normal classroom routines. She focuses on activities like handwriting, typing, cutting, coloring, visual perception and completing multi-step tasks.

“I recommend accommodations and modifications to the environment to help promote success for my students in class,” Flanagan said.

After she leaves elementary schools, she heads to her outpatient clinic, where she services clients with varying goals and needs, including fine motor development, visual motor and perceptual skills, cognition, sensory processing and emotional regulation.

Flanagan appreciates the way pediatric occupational therapy can help children to gain a sense of autonomy and reach their potential. 

“I love that I can be a support for families of children with disabilities and enable functional, safe participation in family tasks as independently as possible,” Flanagan said.

Yet, Flanagan acknowledges the challenges of transitioning from student to practitioner. Thanks to a supportive mentorship program, she navigated this journey with guidance.

“I try to integrate self-care like exercise into my week as much as possible because it’s important that I’m bringing my most regulated self to sessions to help regulate the children I work with,” Flanagan said.

Through it all, Flanagan has remained committed to pediatric occupational therapy. In the years to come, she will continue to rely on the fundamental and in-depth knowledge she learned from the occupational therapy classes and labs that originally caught her attention at Scranton, and she hopes to expand her knowledge and work with more specific treatments, specifically in the neuro aspect of pediatric occupational therapy.

“Each course at Scranton was integrated with the activity analysis component that truly taught me to ‘think like an OT,’” Flanagan said.

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