Living and learning

Brenau students a big part of Champions Place success

An occupational therapy student plays a game with a Champions Place resident.

Over the past year, occupational therapy students in Brenau University’s Ivester College of Health Sciences have been getting hands-on experience thanks to a partnership with Champions Place, an accessible residence where physically challenged young adults can live independently. 

The partnership began after Windy Cruz, adjunct instructor in OT, took on a private client, Matt Thompson, whose father, Rick, is the executive director of Champions Place. After some initial discussions, Rick Thompson, Cruz and School of Occupational Therapy Director Kathy Foley eventually decided that Champions Place would be a perfect fit for Brenau students. 

Foley says the partnership is a win-win as students are able to apply what they learn in the classroom with residents who benefit from what occupational therapy has to offer.

“The students also learn from the individuals at Champions Place,” Foley says. “The students can see what people are able to do with the right environment — that they don’t need to be as dependent if they had the ability to access their bedroom, kitchen or vehicle. It’s kind of a back-and-forth in that they’re both getting something out of it. I think the students enjoy learning this way as opposed to just being in the classroom.” 

Champions Place, located just outside of Atlanta in Alpharetta, opened in October 2020 after years of planning. Rick Thompson got together with other families in the community to figure out ways to keep their young adult children active so they did not feel isolated from their peers. They started off by forming a wheelchair sports league called the Titans, but they eventually realized that an independent-living solution was needed.

“We looked all over the country,” Thompson says. “We couldn’t find any place like this that is customized for young adults with physical disabilities.” 

Brenau’s master’s and doctoral OT students have been working and volunteering with Champions Place since it opened. While their duties include assessing residents to help make daily tasks easier, they also work with Champions Place to hold cooking classes and help put on karaoke and movie nights.

In addition to Brenau, Champions Place has partnerships with clothing and technology companies to help make its living spaces more accessible. Tommy Hilfiger created adaptive clothing, some of which has velcro, making it easier for residents to dress themselves. Google assistive technology also helps residents with several tasks like turning on lights, watching television or even talking to loved ones. The residents test the products and give feedback on what does and does not work well.

“It’s a test bed,” Thompson says. “It’s a home that we hope to replicate either ourselves or by helping others around the country.”

A Brenau student helps Champions Place residents exercise.

Students become residents

When Champions Place was getting ready to open, Madison Cookston learned about an opportunity to live full time at the facility while pursuing her degree. Cookston, who is now in her second year of Brenau’s entry-level OT doctorate program, says she went through rounds of interviews, got the job and moved in when her first semester started. 

Cookston’s interest in working with young adults with physical challenges began in high school when her friends started working at Camp Smile, a residential summer camp in Mobile, Alabama, for people with disabilities and their siblings. She decided to try it for herself after hearing how much her friends enjoyed working there. 

“I worked and volunteered for a lot of hours with the young adult population,” Cookston says. “I really loved it. For me, living at Champions Place sounded like a lot of fun and like a great opportunity for me being in occupational therapy school. I thought I could get a lot of great experience out of my time there.”

While living at Champions Place, Cookston assisted residents in various ways such as helping them get ready for dinner or by planning activities. Since she lived there, she was also on call at night if there were any emergencies.

Cookston stresses the importance of people understanding that residents at Champions Place can do tasks for themselves, even if they need a little help or extra time.

“There are things that can be a little bit more challenging for them that would seem super simple for some,” she says. “A lot of them have lived at home for their entire lives with people to do things for them. We try to promote independence at Champions Place. It’s cool to see their faces light up when they realize they can do things on their own. I’ve seen them grow so much.”

Thompson says that Cookston and other Brenau students who have lived at Champions Place have been important to the success of their fellow Champions Place residents.

“Madison was seeing things that the staff wasn’t,” Thompson says. “You’re living with the individuals 24/7. Think about how much a student could learn with all of that time. But more than that, we have to rely on them to be our eyes and ears. The students are a big part of the input process.”

‘Like family’

Cookston says that one time the residents were out to dinner as a group and someone paid for their meal. 

“The residents appreciate that, but they come back and they’re like, ‘Why are they paying for our dinner? We have jobs. We can pay for our own dinner,’” Cookston says. “They just want to be treated like normal, adult human beings. A lot of them have college degrees. They’re smart and capable.

“It means so much to them to have someone that doesn’t look at them like they’re different. They might need a little help here or there, but that’s OK. We all have our strengths. We all have our weaknesses. Unfortunately, because theirs are more visible than ours, they get focused on more.” 

As much as Cookston enjoyed her time living at Champions Place, she was unable to commit to doing it again this year as she needed to be available for her ill father. Still, Cookston says she sees everyone at Champions Place once a week.

“I couldn’t fathom not going back and seeing them,” she says. “They are like family. I lived with them for so long. I told them, ‘I’m not here every night, but if you need me, call me and I’ll be there.’ It was a very hard decision to leave. I’m thankful that I’m able to still be involved as much as possible.”

You must be logged in to post a comment.