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Vocational Program Expands to the Big House!

Special Tree vocational clients are accomplishing big things at the Big House!  For the U of M football 2016 season, a team of eight clients along with Special Tree job coaches are responsible for filling and cleaning all condiment stations at the 100,000 seat stadium during home games.   

“This has been a wonderful opportunity for our clients to get valuable work experience in the community,” said Rene Dell, Associate Director of Vocational Services.  With support from job coaches, clients are developing important job skills for competitive employment like following directions, working under stress, focusing on tasks, and being a part of a team. “Since working at the Big House, we’ve seen so much growth from clients,” she said. “Their self-confidence is up, they feel better about themselves, and it gives clients hope to know that it’s possible to find work in the community.”  

Being in charge of the condiments stations for the largest stadium in the country is a lot of work, but Rene says the group is having a great time doing it. “We have some serious U of M football fans in the group, so they love working behind the scenes and being part of the excitement.”     

The Big House is just one of many community enclaves that are part of Special Tree’s Vocational Rehabilitation program.  The enclaves are a great bridge for vocational clients who are ready to beef up their job readiness skills in a work environment outside of Special Tree.  Special Tree partners with local businesses and organizations to find paid, real work opportunities in the community that clients enjoy and for what they're best suited.  Prior to working in an enclave, vocational counselors develop an individualized vocational plan for each client through interviews, vocational testing, and/or in-depth vocational assessments.  Being familiar with each client's needs, interests, and goals helps job coaches to modify and adapt job tasks at enclaves so clients experience success and learn to work independently.  “We have a great team of hard working job coaches who are dedicated to helping clients reach their highest potential,” said Rene.  Currently, clients work at St. Vincent DePaul assisting customers and sorting and organizing donations; Ann Visger Elementary School assisting in the art room and tutoring kids in the classroom; and Health Source in Midland doing light janitorial work and visiting with patients.

Learn more about Special Tree's comprehensive Vocational Rehabiliation services. 




Adaptive Sports in Full Swing at Special Tree

From kayaking and biking to golf and fishing, adaptive sports and recreational activities are an important part of our clients' rehabilitation and recovery.  Being physically active not only helps clients improve strength and fitness, but it can have a positive impact on their overall well-being and quality of life.

“Participation in sports and recreation can speed the recovery process, and it shows our clients that their disability doesn’t have to keep them from an active and enjoyable lifestyle,” said Special Tree Recreational Therapist Kristin Claerhout, who organizes Special Tree adaptive golf program.  Special Tree’s Recreational Therapists encourage clients to explore new activities as well as return to activities they enjoyed before their injury and work with each client to find the most appropriate activity for their interests, capabilities, and needs. 

Adaptive Sports Experience
Opportunities for recreational activities are available year-round, but summer is a great time for our clients to experience the benefits of adaptive sports. To help clients and others learn more about adaptive sports and recreation, Special Tree’s Recreational Therapists are hosting a free community-wide event at Willow MetroPark on July 27, 2016. The Adaptive Sports Experience features hands-on demos of adaptive kayaking, biking, golf, fishing, and yoga. Come see what you can do!  Learn more.



Staff Honored for Dedication to Quality

Special Tree takes great pride in the recognitions we’ve earned for our commitment to quality, but we’re especially proud of our staff members who strive for quality excellence in everything they do each and every day.  Special Tree recognizes staff for their outstanding dedication to quality with the coveted “Lynn Slevin” Quality Award, named after Lynn Slevin, Special Tree’s Quality Officer who retired in 2015.

CEO Joe Richert presented this year’s award to Special Tree Registered Dietitians Jill Bruce and Brahmlin Sethi at the annual Ol’ Timer Recognition Luncheon on May 13, 2016.   Jill and Brahmlin were nominated for the award by fellow staff for their commitment to improve client satisfaction and health as well as the general health of staff through several company-wide programs including:

Quarterly Residential Food Service Training
Regular In-service Classes on Nutrition and Food Safety
Healthy Living Challenge for Staff
Annual Healthy Soup Challenge
Guidance on Nutritional Menus at all our Facilities
Individualized Client Nutritional Support and Education

Congratulations to Jill and Brahmlin as well as to Special Tree’s honorable mentions including:

Lisa Bray, NCC Operational Manager
Vickie Lambert, Manager of Safety & Support Services
Suzanne Morrison, Social Worker, NCC South
The Residential Team & Residential AOD Team.

Scholarship Winners Announced!

Special Tree has awarded $1000 scholarships to twelve outstanding college-bound seniors to pursue careers in healthcare.  The competitve scholarship is given to students who are interested in continuing their education in a healthcare field and who have achieved academic excellence at schools in communities where Special Tree has a rehabilitation facilitiy.  Congrats to our 2016 recipients!

Tiera Thornton, Arthur Hill High School
Jacob Moak, Birmingham Groves High School
Griffin Ballick, Dakota High School
Alexandria Turner, Flat Rock High School
Emily Reams, Freeland High School​
Madison Kent, H.H. Dow High School
Angelica Zhou, Livonia Churchill High School
Jackson Arnold, New Boston Huron High School
Jacqueline Helstowski, Riverview High School
Alexis Paisley, Romulus High School
Katelyn Tomaszewski, Royal Oak High School
Hunter Angileri, Southgate High School

"We strongly believe in encouraging young people to consider careers in healthcare,” said Special Tree CEO Joseph Richert.  “With the dire need for more healthcare professionals and the increasing costs of higher education, Special Tree is happy to help support our scholarship winners in achieving their educational goals.” 

Special Tree’s Healthcare and Rehabilitation Scholarship was created in 1995 to encourage students to pursue healthcare careers and to increase awareness of traumatic brain injury.  With this year’s awards, Special Tree has contributed over $200,000 in scholarships to deserving students since the program’s inception.

In addition to the scholarship program, Special Tree provides educational opportunities to high school and college students through job shoadowing and clinical internship programs in a wide range of disciplines including Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, Physical Therapy, Case Management, Nursing, Respiratory Therapy, Social Work, Psychology, and Recreational Therapy.






Special Tree Team Member Wins National Award for Injury Prevention Education

Around Special Tree, Todd Hammons is known as a strong advocate for persons with spinal cord injury (second from right in photo).  As Special Tree's Accessibility Advisor, he orchestrates our annual Mobility Expo as well as a monthly Spinal Cord Injury support group.  Not only is he passionate about showing people what they CAN do after spinal cord injury, he's also dedicated to preventing serious injury in the first place, especially among teens.

Todd was recently honored with a national award for his work with Think First, an injury prevention program for K-12 which strives to prevent brain and spinal cord injuries through education.  For the past two decades, Todd has been a “Voice for Injury Prevention” (VIP) for Think First, sharing his own experience with spinal cord injury with thousands of local students to raise awareness about the serious consequences of risky behavior.  Todd traveled to Chicago in May to accept the “VIP of the Year” award at Think First’s national convention.

Todd was nominated for the award by Joyce Kessler, co-President of Think First’s Washtenaw Chapter, because he exemplified the group’s message and passion for its mission.  “Todd conveys his message in a way that really hits home with kids," she said, adding that students always want to talk to Todd after a presentation and that he has binders full of thank you letters.

“We’re so proud of all the great work that Todd has done for Think First and also for Special Tree.”




What do SLPs do?

May is Better Speech and Hearing Month and the perfect time to learn more about what Speech Language Pathologists do at Special Tree.  Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) have a long job title, but they need all those words to reflect the many aspects of their job.  Speech is our ability to make sounds so others hear and understand us.  Language is much broader and involves a system of communication – the underlying rules (sounds, words, grammar) we all use to communicate.  SLPs diagnose and treat communication disorders that interfere with BOTH speech and language.   At Special Tree, SLPs treat clients with communication disorders following brain injuries and other neurological impairments whose injuries have affected skills such as eating, swallowing, verbal and non-verbal communication, memory, sequencing, problem-solving and more.  Speech-Language Pathologists work with the interdisciplinary team to develop appropriate rehabilitation for each client.

Our SLPs diagnose and treat the following communication disorders:

Aphasia is an impairment of language that can mildly, moderately, or severely impact a persons’ ability to express and understand many aspects of language. This language impairment can impair the ability to express oneself through talking, writing, or gesture (e.g., sign language). Aphasia can also impair the ability to understand what one hears or reads, or what is being gestured

Apraxia is a disorder that makes difficult the sequencing and coordination of movements. Many different body structures can be affected by apraxia, and as such, there are many different forms of this disorder including but not limited to oral apraxia, apraxia of speech (verbal apraxia), limb apraxia, and conceptual apraxia.

Cognitive-Communication Disorders
This refers to communication difficulties that stem from underlying impairments in cognition, behavior, and/or emotion

Cognitive Impairment
Cognition can be described as the means by which we acquire knowledge or understanding. The essential processes by which we acquire information include the five primary senses paired with our arousal, attention, speed of processing, visual-spatial ability, memory, language, and executive functioning. These are all neural functions and consequently, neurologic injury can often impair one or many of these processes

Communication and Environmental Access Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)
AAC includes all forms of communication, other than speech.  SLPs provide assessments, recommendations, and training to those with severe speech or language problems who may rely on a system to supplement their existing communication or completely replace speech that may be non-functional. AAC systems (whether low- or high-tech) allow individuals to communicate their thoughts, express their feelings, direct their caregivers regarding their wants/needs, and participate in social interaction

Dysarthria is a neurogenic speech disorder caused by a weakened, paralyzed, or uncoordinated speech system. The speech of a person with dysarthria may sound sluggish, weak, imprecise, or uncoordinated

Dysphagia is a term used when a person experiences difficulty swallowing food, liquid or managing secretions.  Special Tree SLPs assess client’s strength and movement of the muscles involved in swallowing, and observe feeding to see a client's posture, behavior, and oral movements during eating and drinking. Speech therapy may involve special tests to evaluate swallowing. Therapists may recommend exercises, positions, or strategies to help clients swallow more effectively. Working closely with the Dietary Manager and Nutritionist, specific food and liquid textures that are easier and safer to swallow may be recommended.

Positive Coping Skills



In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, here’s a list of positive coping skills from Special Tree Neuropsychology team that may help when you're experiencing strong emotions such as anger, anxiety, or depression. The purpose of these activities is to help you learn to be more resilient and stress tolerant. These activities are not likely to create more stress or problems so give them a try!  Learn more about Special Tree's Neuropsychology services here.


  1. Write, draw, paint, photography
  2. Play an instrument, sing, dance, act
  3. Take a shower or a bath
  4. Garden
  5. Take a walk, or go for a drive
  6. Watch television or a movie
  7. Watch cute dog videos on YouTube
  8. Go shopping
  9. Clean or organize your environment
  10. Read
  11. Take a break or vacation

Social/Interpersonal (with others)

  1. Talk to someone you trust
  2. Set boundaries and say "no"
  3. Write a note to someone you care about
  4. Be assertive
  5. Use humor
  6. Spend time with friends and/or family
  7. Serve someone in need
  8. Care for or play with a pet
  9. Role-play challenging situations with others
  10. Encourage others

Cognitive (Of the Mind)

  1. Make a gratitude list
  2. Brainstorm alternative solutions
  3. Keep an inspirational quote with you
  4. Be flexible
  5. Write a list of goals
  6. Act opposite of negative feelings
  7. Write a list of pros and cons for decisions
  8. Reward or pamper yourself when successful
  9. Write a list of strengths

Tension Releasers

  1. Exercise or play sports
  2. Catharsis (yelling into a pillow, punching a punching bag)
  3. Cry
  4. Laugh


  1. Get enough sleep
  2. Get into a good routine
  3. Eat healthy foods but also eat a little chocolate
  4. Deep/slow breathing


  1. Pray or meditate
  2. Enjoy nature
  3. Get involved in a worthy cause

Limit Setting

  1. Drop some involvement
  2. Prioritize important tasks
  3. Use assertive communication
  4. Schedule time for yourself

Special Tree Wins Healthcare Achievement Award

Special Tree is the recipient of the 2016 Intalere Healthcare Achievement Award which recognizes healthcare providers for their efforts to enhance quality and operations, improve patient satisfaction, and increase community awareness and education.  According to Animesh Anand, Chief Administratife Officer, Special Tree won in the financial and operational improvements category.  “By making adjustments to our supplier/distributor/vendor relationships, we were able to reduce costs and maintain Special Tree’s high quality patient care.”  


Mobile Apps for Brain Injury Recovery

Smartphones and tablets are everywhere these days, including at Special Tree, where they've become powerful therapy tools to help people with brain injury.  Special Tree Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, and Physical Therapists all utilize a long list of mobile apps to help improve outcomes for clients throughout the entire rehabiliation process.

In honor of Occupational Therapy Month, we're spotlighting the apps that Special Tree OTs use most often to help improve everyday living skills.  Thanks to Special Tree OT Amanda Katt Phillips for compiling the list

Week Cal $1.99 (iOS only)

The most beneficial feature of this app is the ability to color code events.  Since people with TBI brains work differently, having a color coded visual cues can increase attention and memory.  Templates for recurring events can be created, decreasing the chance of entry errors.  Icons can also be added to events for an additional visual cue.  Many people with TBI have problems with their vision.  The native iPhone calendar is bright white and the glare can be disruptive.  Week Cal has a dark theme which reduces eye strain and also makes the color coding more prominent (iPhone only).  There are seven different views from daily to yearly which give people with TBI more flexibility to choose the layout that works best for them.  If the client is already using their native calendar app or Google calendar, once installed all the prior and upcoming events can be synchronized in minutes to Week Cal.  All of the days and tomorrows events also appear on the iPhone’s widget by swiping down from the lock screen.


Medisafe Medication Reminder, Prescription and Pill Organizer Free (iOS and Android

Taking all prescribed medications accurately is an extremely important part of living with a TBI.  Remembering what was taken and when can be a major difficulty due to memory and attention deficits.  Medisafe is a great app to help clients remember to take their medications and tracks compliance.  The other benefit of this app is that it is visual based and not only a written list.  When entering a new medication, the shape and color of the pill can be set.  There are also symbols for injections, inhalers, liquid and powder.  The pill box view gives a simple visual reminder of the number of pills to take in a 6 hour period.  Refill reminders can be set based on the custom number of pills before running out, eliminating the need to count months, weeks and days.  The report shows the daily number of medications taken and missed.  Health measurements can also be tracked within the app including but not limited to: cholesterol, weight, glucose and blood pressure.  Users can add a family member or friend that will be notified 30 minutes after a missed dose.  No more taking a bag of pill bottles to doctor appointments.  All the current medication information will be stored on your phone.


1Password Free (iOS and Android

1Password stores all of your usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, addresses and even has a notepad. This app is not just for people with TBI, anyone can benefit from it.  You don’t even have to remember the one master password.  The app can be unlocked using the fingerprint scanner on iPhone or Android.  If the user enters the log in website, there’s a built in browser that can fill in the usernames and passwords with just the touch of a button.  Credit card numbers can be copied and pasted within the app or another browser so there’s no more searching for your wallet.  1Password can also create passwords for you from 4 to 50 characters for increase security along with its AES 256-bit encryption.  There are more features such as creating multiple vaults to categorize information in the paid version.


Celebrating Occupational Therapy Month

April is Occupational Therapy Month and at Special Tree we’re celebrating the many ways our Occupational Therapists (OTs) and Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA) help our clients to become as independent as possible in their daily life.

Occupational therapy is an integral part of the rehabilitation process because it focuses on the activities and tasks we do on a daily basis for our self-care, work, and leisure.  Special Tree's OTs and COTAs provide the therapeutic interventions to help our clients perform these daily activities in a more functional, successful, and independent way.   The OT team is involved in every phase of recovery from helping clients and/or their caregivers learn basic tasks like dressing, bathing, and eating, all the way through returning to work, home management, and driving.   In addition to helping clients regain meaningful everyday living skills, OTs and COTAs also specialize in vision therapy and sensory integration therapy to address visual perception and sensory issues that are common after a TBI.

We asked Special Tree's Ursula Kotzabassi to share her thoughts on being an Occupational Therapist.

Why did you decide to become an OT?

I was a college student at Eastern Michigan University and I hadn't chosen a major yet, but knew I wanted to do something to help people. I started investigating different types of therapy professions and found that occupational therapy fit best with my personality and the way I wanted to help people. I talked to a friend whose mother had had a stroke when we were in elementary school and learned about her experience receiving occupational therapy. She had to relearn how to care for herself and her family and went on to live an independent and fulfilling life. After that I decided that I wanted to help other people do the same.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

When people realize they are still capable of doing things for themselves and for others in the face of losing nearly everything. I am excited about my job and the possibilities that exist to help people achieve independence to do the things that they want to and need to do.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned from clients?

Try not to take things for granted, life can change in a matter of seconds. Be open, flexible, stay positive and learn to adapt to situations as they change. Growth can come from adversity, but it takes time and the right mindset.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love spending time with my family and friends: sharing a meal, watching a movie, playing board games or just talking. My second job is co-parenting a loving and rambunctious 3 year old boy, a geriatric great dane, two ridiculously playful kittens and a handful of well-behaved saltwater fish. I'd love to try some new hobbies so if you have a suggestion come find me in therapy!