What Does an Occupational Therapy Assistant Do?

Parker University alumni Kari Howard COTA.
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Parker University alumni Kari Howard COTA.

Through Parker University’s popular Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program, alumni Kari Howard COTA saw her dream of becoming a nurse transform into a developed passion for being an OTA. After spending more than two decades as a devoted mom and crafting enthusiast, a fate-fueled conversation redirected Kari’s path to her OTA career, which changed her journey immensely.

Time for a Change

Kari was blessed with her dream job when she had her daughter and then son and became a stay-at-home mom. For the next 20 years, she raised kids, volunteered at church and schools, and tried her hand at all things “artsy-craftsy.” When her youngest child was in high school, Kari decided it was time to choose what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I thought about becoming a nurse, so I asked a friend if she had it all to do over again what she would choose to pursue. Immediately, she answered back with ‘OTA!’”

However, Kari had never even heard of OTAs. Her friend fondly described the career as one that required creative problem-solving but also greatly helped and healed people. That’s all it took to convince her to pursue this newfound career. “When I started my first class at Parker University, I thought this would be easy. I already had one degree. Within a few weeks, I learned that I would work harder for my OTA degree than for my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree,” Kari says.

Throughout her journey at Parker University, Kari did not see her future self working with children or making a career that involved home health. Fast forward to January 2020, when Kari had a last-minute opportunity to go on a medical mission trip to Uganda. “We came back just as COVID forced the world to social distance. I took my National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam on the last day in March that the testing center was still open. I didn’t have to find a job immediately because there were none to be found!” Kari shares.

During the pandemic, there were no elective surgeries taking place, which meant there really would be no knee, hip, or shoulder rehabilitation jobs looking for OTAs. Kari says, “By July, I started getting antsy, seeing that every job required at least a year of experience. I had to take a job. Any job! A student from my class raved about pediatric home health and encouraged me to give it a try. It turns out I like kids more than I thought, and I love the flexibility of home health!”

Learn It – Live It!

A post-graduation trip to Uganda in 2020 reshaped Kari’s perspective on the crucial role OTAs play worldwide – from villages and remote locations to rehabilitation centers and patients’ homes.

After returning and working with children again for two years, Kari realized she could go back to Uganda. This time, instead of sitting at the front of a room talking to mothers of malnourished babies, she could sit in the back of the room and be one of the people working with the babies! It didn’t take long for her to start making lists, plans, and goals for an upcoming trip.

By 2023, now a pediatric COTA, Kari returned to Uganda on another mission trip, actively providing what some might call “OTA interventions” by aiding malnourished infants, teaching mothers by using simple tools, and sharing OTA skills with local clinics. Her team spent 19 days in two different malnutrition clinics. “I assessed the babies’ gross developmental milestones and offered ways moms can help their children regain and attain delayed skills. I acted out the early stages of development, just like we did in PEDS class, by rolling around on the floor, which was hilarious to the Ugandans!” Kari shares. “I demonstrated how to make simple toys from water bottles and taught these mothers how to play and interact with their babies. I collaborated with doctors and nurses, sharing OTA practices and how they can educate parents.”

Moses, the manager at one of the clinics Kari visited, is now developing vocational training programs that these mothers attend during the time their child is admitted. In addition to caring for their sick children, these mothers can learn about preparing nutrient-rich meals, gardening, self-care, and marketable skills. Kari says, “I shared the roots of my role as an OTA with Moses. His programs are essentially occupational therapy for the mothers’ mental and physical health!”

Living the Dream

After often sporting a t-shirt that jokingly read, “Occupational Therapy – nobody knows what we do,” Kari now has an inspirational story to share with aspiring OTAs that wonderfully demonstrates what exactly you can achieve as an OTA, including changing lives, educating others, sharing resources, and healing.

From Parker University to Uganda, Kari has most definitely found her true career calling. Parker University applauds all the great work and service Kari and so many other graduates provide to people around the world!

To learn more about Parker University’s prestigious OTA program, click here!