INSPIRE program welcomes last cohort of scholars in early childhood intervention

student working with child

By Katarina Fiorentino Klatzkow

For the past five years, the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions has been dedicated to closing Florida’s early intervention workforce gap through the Interdisciplinary Related Services Personnel Preparation for Early Childhood, or INSPIRE, program. Now in its last year, INSPIRE welcomes its final cohort of scholars who are aspiring physical therapists, speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists planning to work with young children with disabilities upon graduation.

Kristin Lewandowski, M.A., CCC-SLP, Christine Myers, Ph.D., OTR/L, and Claudia Senesac, Ph.D., P.T., directors of the INSPIRE program.

Funded by a $1.24 million grant from the Department of Education, the INSPIRE program provides stipends that have covered one full year of tuition for 47 students in PHHP’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy, Doctor of Physical Therapy and Master of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders programs.

INSPIRE scholars engage in a specialized curriculum and training during their time in graduate school and complete a service obligation of two years of employment in an early intervention or school setting after graduation.

“I have been amazed at the impact INSPIRE has on our students,” said Kristin Lewandowski, M.A., CCC-SLP, INSPIRE co-director and an instructional assistant professor in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences. “Each student grows to not just fully understand the role their discipline plays in servicing children, but more importantly, how each unique discipline partners with theirs to best support children and their families.”

The INSPIRE program’s last cohort of scholars. Funding for scholars continues through September 2024. Top row (left to right): Daniela Nieves (occupational therapy), Mary Huntley (occupational therapy), Joshua Starcher (physical therapy). Second row: Bethany Kruger (occupational therapy), Lindsey Boyett (physical therapy), Sophia Flood (physical therapy). Front row: Haley Schubert (speech-language pathology), Emily Fendrick (speech-language pathology), Maria Jochim (speech-language pathology).

For children with disabilities, early intervention can make a significant difference in their cognitive, communication, learning, sensory and motor development, leading to better health outcomes and overall well-being.

However, in the state of Florida, a shortage of qualified therapy providers means many children face long wait times for necessary services.

“Extensive brain development occurs during the first three to five years of life so there is a crucial need for intervention to support the growth of infants, toddlers and preschoolers with or at-risk of developing disabilities,” said Christine Myers, Ph.D., OTR/L., INSPIRE director and a clinical professor in the department of occupational therapy. “When OT, PT and SLPs are not available to provide services, children and families miss a critical window to help prevent or reduce negative impacts to physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development.”

Early in their graduate education, INSPIRE scholars work on interdisciplinary rehabilitation teams, engaging in experiential learning experiences, modeled demonstrations, and working with experienced clinical mentors during early childhood fieldwork or internship placements.

“I believe that our scholars leave with the confidence and the ability to work and contribute on a team of professionals providing care to families and children with complex medical cases. They are more adaptable to changing environments and have been provided skills to garner resources that will further enhance their ability to make a difference,” said Claudia Senesac, Ph.D., P.T., INSPIRE co-director and a clinical professor in the department of physical therapy.

Because of funding agency guidelines, UF won’t be able to re-apply for INSPIRE program funding for five years, but the impact of the training program on Florida families will last for years to come.

“Scholars, families and children have and will benefit from this training grant for many years!” Senesac said.

Meet INSPIRe Scholar Alumni!

Kathleen “KK” Huffman, D.P.T., P.T., discovered a passion for working with pediatric patients during her first year of physical therapy school. A graduate of Furman University’s Bachelor of Health Sciences ’19 program, Huffman completed her PHHP Doctor of Physical Therapy degree in 2022. She was drawn to the INSPIRE program for its emphasis on interdisciplinary team therapy and to early intervention for the ability to form treatment plans that positively benefit patients for the entirety of their lives.

KK Huffman graduating from UF with her D.P.T.

Now a school-based physical therapist, Huffman uses the skills she learned from the INSPIRE program daily in her work.

“The Inspire program allowed me to gain confidence in treating younger patients,” she said. “It also helped teach me to become creative with treatment to include functional aspects within a natural environment.”

Additionally, Huffman credits INSPIRE with offering networking opportunities to connect with other clinicians with similar career goals.

“The program has led me to find a support system of pediatric clinicians who are able to support me throughout my career and improve my professional development skills and clinical expertise,” she said.

When asked to share what she would say to a current Inspire scholar, Huffman recommends celebrating the small wins: “Keep working hard and take joy in the moments of growth that you can provide to children and their families as it may seem small at the time, but can be so influential within a family unit!” 

Naomi Kelly, M.A., CCC-SLP, is following her dream of working with pediatric populations as a speech-language pathologist with Orange County Schools. A PHHP double Gator alumna, Kelly obtained her Bachelor of Health Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders in 2020 and her Master of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders in 2022. The INSPIRE program, she says, helped her specialize early on in her career and gave her the clinical skills to work with young children and their families.

Naomi Kelly with her sweet dog, Taim.

“I developed a passion for working with early intervention populations through the INSPIRE program,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to work with pediatrics, and I was also interested in learning about interdisciplinary collaboration and specialty areas within the field of speech-language pathology.”

She attributes her early career success with the unique skills and strong foundational and clinical knowledge she gained from her time in the program.

“My first job after graduate school was working in pediatric home health, specifically providing early intervention services, and I am now working in an elementary school,” she said. “The INSPIRE program helped prepare me for both early intervention and school service provider roles.”

For Kelly, the opportunity to collaborate and work with other clinical professionals, such as physical and occupational therapists, was her favorite part about being an INSPIRE scholar.

Her advice for current scholars: Explore your passions and leverage the unique experiences offered by the program.

“Take advantage of all clinic opportunities provided to you to see what sparks your interest the most,” she said. “Go in with an open mind to learn and gain as many experiences as you can!”

Shelby Todd, O.T.D., OTR/L, aspired to work with young children in her career as an occupational therapist. An alumna of both the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) and the University of Florida Doctor of Occupational Therapy program, Todd received undergraduate degrees in psychology and exercise and sport science in 2018, before graduating with her doctor of occupational therapy degree from PHHP in 2021.

Shelby Todd has a passion for working in early intervention as an occupational therapist.

She chose the INSPIRE program for its emphasis on specialty training and the opportunity to use a transdisciplinary approach to treatment alongside physical and speech therapists.

“I always knew that I wanted to work in pediatrics and the INSPIRE program provided specialized training in an area that is often glanced over in the traditional curriculum,” she said. “Following my training, I have pursued a career in pediatrics and have now been practicing in early intervention for over a year.”

Todd says the INSPIRE program helped her gain the confidence to apply for early intervention positions as a new therapist and gave her a strong foundation for collaboration with other disciplines as a licensed provider.

“Without INSPIRE, I may not have felt prepared to work in early intervention so early in my career,” she said.

If she could speak with a current scholar about the INSPIRE program, Todd has the following advice: The sky’s the limit.

Following graduation, do not limit yourself when applying for jobs,” she emphasizes. “You know more than you think you do and your INSPIRE training will truly set you apart.”

Ashley Tringas, D.P.T., P.T., always planned to work with children with varying abilities as a pediatric physical therapist. As an alumna from the INSPIRE program’s first cohort of scholars, Tringas used her extra training and specialization in early intervention to kickstart her career in pediatric physical therapy. A double Gator, Tringas obtained her Bachelor of Science in Family, Youth and Community Sciences from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in 2018, and a Doctor of Physical Therapy  from PHHP in 2021.

Ashley Tringas credits the INSPIRE program with helping her land her first position post-graduation.

Some of her most valued experiences from her time in the program are collaboration sessions with other rehabilitation disciplines.

“One of my favorite memories is performing the first arena-style assessment with a speech therapist student and occupational therapist student,” she said. “We met and prepared as a group and one of the goals was to administer the test components outside of our own discipline. This experience allowed me to get a better understanding of the other disciplines while also administering a standardized test. Having the ability to practice administering the test and learning about what other disciplines focus on allowed me to start building confidence and knowledge in early intervention and the pediatric world!”

Tringas says the Inspire program paved the way for her first job after graduation. The mentorship she received helped her build the confidence necessary to become an independent practitioner.

“The Inspire program introduced me to state early intervention programs that allowed me to perform home visits for children, where I was able to see the impact performing therapy in the home provided. I have further learned how to inspire parents to work with their children and provide the carryover of therapy throughout the week,” she said. “Without the Inspire program, I would not be the therapist I am today.”