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Physical Therapy Students invent new therapy for those with special needs

MERIDIAN - December 21, 2022

Three students pursuing a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at Idaho State University recently started FIreFlies, a respite program for families with individuals who have special needs. The students, Jensen Haigh, Lauren French, and Rachel Joern, presented their idea after researching a similar program, called Night Owls, at the University of Denver. All three students will graduate in 2023, and they discovered in their research that although they wanted to model their program after Night Owls, ISU did not have the facilities in Meridian for this type of program.  

A young boy in a wheelchair plays with a toy in a gymnasium at the ISU FireFlies program

Instead, they developed a vision and a plan for a community partner to help support the program. After presenting and meeting with several programs in the Treasure Valley, the program was adopted by the South Meridian YMCA Thrive Program.

Now, DPT students volunteer once a month to provide respite care to families and guardians of those with special needs, and the first FireFlies event was held in November. The participants spend three hours engaged in activities planned by the student leaders and eat pizza, while their parents or guardians get that time to pursue their own activities or free time for three hours. The YMCA also secured an anonymous donor for expenses, and the program has been fully funded for 2023.

Families that care for individuals with additional needs often do not get a break from their caregiving duties, and any break, even just a few hours, can make a world of difference. Those who attended the first FireFlies event shared their appreciation for the efforts of the PT students.

One couple stated that this was the first night in 24 years that they had a "date night." 

One participant used his communication device to say, "I am having so much fun!" 

And one family wrote in an email to the YMCA, speaking about the person in their care, "This is the first time in a year that he’s lived with me that he’s gotten to go somewhere by himself. Also, I was able to take my kids out for a few hours. We are limited by things that are accessible for his wheelchair. I am just so thrilled and touched by all of you wonderful people".

Jill Harris, clinical assistant professor for the PT program, says the students have enjoyed FireFlies just as much fun as the attendees. “It is a great opportunity for our students to engage with community service, provide an experience to these participants that is fun-filled, and provide some relief to their parents and guardians,” Harris explains. “It is truly an honor to assist our students in developing a program that is impactful and meaningful to them, and for the families.”

For those interested in attending a FireFlies event, contact Jensen Haigh by emailing jensenhaigh@isu.edu.


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