Therapeutic Recreation Alums Making a Positive Impact with Innovative Dementia Programs in the Fairfax Community

May 31, 2017

Vivian Coda and Rachael Wray, both graduates of the Therapeutic Recreation Program at George Mason and Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists, are employed at Insight Memory Care Center, an adult day facility in Fairfax for individuals diagnosed with dementia. The mission of Insight is to retain and restore the quality of life of those diagnosed with dementia through programming, and both Coda and Wray play a critical role in the development and execution of impactful and restorative programming, drawing from their education in the Therapeutic Recreation (TR) Program.

Coda’s first experience assisting seniors with disabilities and providing therapeutic recreation services was when she was finishing high school and her grandfather was admitted to the Veterans Affairs nursing home due to a decrease in his physical functioning. Her time at the nursing home strengthened her interest in entering the field of healthcare, but she didn’t know exactly which path to take. After she graduated from high school in New Jersey, Coda "bounced around to a couple of community colleges" and eventually started taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC).

At NVCC Coda crossed paths with Brenda Wiggins, associate professor and academic program coordinator for Therapeutic Recreation, when Wiggins presented to her class. Coda met with Wiggins after the presentation regarding transferring into the TR program at Mason. "I immediately fell in love with the holistic approach of therapeutic recreation, and Dr. Wiggins was so helpful and kind," Coda explained, recounting her first meeting with Wiggins. "I knew this was the path for me."

At Mason Coda met Wray, a Fairfax native, who had started at the university at the same time. Wray had also attended NVCC where she had earned an associate of science degree. Like Coda, Wray knew that she wanted to go into healthcare but didn’t exactly know which field. Many of Wray’s classmates were going into physical therapy, but she didn’t just want to "follow the pack." A meeting with Wiggins affirmed her interest in pursuing a concentration in therapeutic recreation.

Coda and Wray were introduced by a mutual friend in David K. Wiggins’ sport history class, and they became fast friends. As TR majors, they took almost all of the same classes together, and their friendship grew, as did a healthy competition with grades. "We shared a lot in common, including not living on campus like so many of our classmates," said Coda. "We became really close friends, which was really helpful in getting through the program."

The final requirement for the bachelor of science with a concentration in therapeutic recreation is a 560-hour internship with a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist in a clinical or community setting. Brenda Wiggins arranged Coda’s internship at Insight Memory Care Center. Upon graduation in May 2016, Coda sat for the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Council exam to be a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist and passed on the first try. The certification signifies that a recreational therapist has the knowledge, skill, and ability essential for the practice of recreational therapy. She then accepted a full-time job with Insight where she has “risen through the ranks” and now serves as director of recreational therapy, managing all aspects therapeutic recreation programming.

Wray had completed a spring internship at Catawba Hospital, a state psychiatric facility, and was working part-time for Fairfax County when a full-time position became available as a recreation therapist on Coda’s team. "I instantly thought of Rachael, and knew she would be great," Coda explained. Wray had also passed the NCTRC exam, becoming a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist on the first try. Fewer than 70% of people who take the exam pass the first time.

At Insight, Coda and Wray assess clients and complete interventions daily for individuals with dementia. They offer a diverse array of programs, many of which they developed. "We offer person-centered programs for our participants, which include physical, social, cognitive, expressive, sensory, and spiritual programs,” Wray explained.

Wray credits her education with assisting her in her current role. "Dr. Wiggins helped me develop many of the same program protocols at Fairfax INOVA Hospital-Geriatric Integrative Care Services, in addition to the experience shared by many of our professors who worked for Fairfax county senior programs and neighborhood and community services. We draw from these experiences and the outstanding education and support we received from Dr. Wiggins and other faculty in the TR Program in our jobs every day."

Mason faculty have also helped start a Music and Memory program at Insight. Faculty members assisted with the initial research to determine the impact of music on the memory impaired and then assisted Insight with developing personalized iPods for clients.

Now Coda and Wray are "paying it forward" by providing opportunities to current Mason students who are completing internships at Insight. "We have a TR student now who has volunteered with us every Thursday for the past two semesters through Mason Life," Coda explained. Another student is completing her practicum with Insight over the summer. In addition to the current TR students, several students in the Social Work Program at Mason are working to measure participation levels and impact of services identified or developed and implemented by Coda and Wray at Insight.

"We want students in the program to have the same opportunities we had," Coda explained. "I hope to be able to hire more great Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists, like Rachael, from George Mason."