AOTA Conference 2014 Recap: Part I

Well, even almost a week after conference I’m still basking in the glow and wishing I could go back. But I’m taking comfort in the fact that hopefully I will be headed to Nashville for the 2015 conference next year!

The following blog post is the first half of a two-part post on my conference experience. This first part will cover my own personal experiences and duties as a conference volunteer and “junior attendee.” In the second part, which is coming soon, I will discuss more of the pragmatic and practical aspects of conference-going (at least as I experienced them).

So if you’re ready, I’m ready! AOTA Conference Recap: Part I – GO!

My Life as a Volunteer

With this blog, it is my goal to add new perspectives and information to the wealth of knowledge that is out there about the wide and wonderful field of occupational therapy. To that end, I’m first going to discuss my experience as a conference volunteer – something I was unable to find ANY information about prior to attending!

Getting a Volunteer Position

First things first. In order to become a volunteer, I had to fill out a brief online survey with my name, phone number, reason for wanting to volunteer, etc. on the AOTA website. Through some strange twist of fate, the day I stumbled upon the volunteer form was the last day they were accepting applications! So I sent in my information and about a month or so later I received an email saying I had been selected to volunteer!

For anybody who stumbles across this blog and is hoping to volunteer, the deadline was in late January. So just keep checking the AOTA site after the new year for your chance to go to conference as a volunteer!

A Variety of Volunteers

My volunteer assignment was included in the initial email, which was a pretty bare-bones affair. The email with my assignment was brief, and simply informed me that I would be helping out at the Hospitality desk/kiosk, acting as a Room Monitor during one of the education sessions and handing out bags at the registration area. Clearly not super glamorous jobs, but I was definitely happy to help!

Awesome Perks – Meeting Bigwigs, Expo Passes and Supporting this Awesome Field

As a volunteer – especially at the very first desk people came to upon arriving at Conference – I had some great networking opportunities. I actually worked alongside Susan Lin, the AOTA’S Director of Research (!!!) for a while, but unfortunately I was too chicken to introduce myself or say anything to her. It’s a shame, because we actually went to the same undergraduate institution! But next year I’ll get myself together and not go blank in the presence of people I think are OT celebrities.

I also ran into the Army OT Guy and ALL OF THE AMAZING KEYNOTE SPEAKERS for this year’s conference while answering questions at the front desk! How awesome is that!? (And more on this specific bit of awesomeness later!)


Erik Johnson & Tim Donley
Me, the Army OT and Tim Donley! My day was clearly off to an awesome start.

I was also happy to volunteer because I felt like I was really helping serve the AOTA and my fellow OT students, therapists and OT advocates. Simply by donating my time, being friendly and making small talk for a few hours, I was able to be a small part of the doings of the AOTA. And I was handsomely rewarded for my contributions with a lovely little “Certificate of Thanks” when my volunteer shifts ended!

But by far the absolute BEST perk was the free Expo pass I received for volunteering! If you end up volunteering for at least four hours, you get a TOTALLY FREE pass to the Conference’s amazing Expo for one day! This is an opportunity that costs $50 if you want to go to the keynote/opening ceremony and the Expo’s grand opening celebration, and $30 each DAY after that! So I definitely saved a significant amount of money by simply volunteering and earning a free pass!

Expo Entrance
It’s ironic that half of the stuff at the Expo was about sensory regulation, because the noise, hustle and bustle of this place was kind of a sensory nightmare!


The Energy was Palpable: At the Opening Ceremony

After my volunteer shifts ended for the day (and you can volunteer on multiple days, I was just assigned THE BEST DAY EVER), I was able to attend the unspeakably inspiring, amazing and energizing keynote speech and opening ceremony.

Now, I realize that some people in other professions probably frown upon people forming a conga line and dancing in the aisles during the opening ceremonies. Clearly occupational therapy is NOT one of those other lame professions! It was so much fun seeing how excited everybody was to be attending the conference, greeting old and new friends and just sharing the excitement that comes with being a part of the largest gathering of occupational therapists in the WORLD!!! There was an awesome live band playing, and it was such a relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere to be in after a somewhat hectic day of answering questions, running errands and taking care of business!

Conga Line
Ignore the hair and look to the left to see the conga line!


As a person who is just starting out on the educational and professional phase of her occupational therapy career, I can’t ever get enough OT at this point. I love talking about it, I love reading about it, I love observing it – I love all things OT! But I’ve also come to understand through reading various blogs and talking to mentors in the field that burnout can and does happen.

That sucks.

Fortunately, the conference is the cure! It’s difficult for me to put into words just how much more excited I became about this wonderful, life-changing profession I was entering by just being in the room during the opening ceremony festivities. I was so proud to see how far our profession has come and how much it is growing, with probably more than 50 occupational therapy programs represented! After seeing everybody in the room celebrating each other’s accomplishments and charging excitedly into the future, it just seemed to me that there was NO WAY anybody could doubt the power and presence of occupational therapy in today’s world or fail to take pride in their contribution to this amazing field.

So just a note from a newbie – if you’re feeling tired of occupational therapy, go find some people who have the spark you need to get energized again! Attend a professional conference or seminar, arrange an OT meetup or reconnect with your old classmates! I’m telling you, the power we have to positively impact others is just as great as the power we have to positively impact ourselves.


A Moving Tribute

After the band left the stage and the hall had fallen silent, American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) President Ginny Stoffel took the stage to introduce several important players and recognize the accomplishments of multiple groups in the field.

During her speech, I realized just how impactful occupational therapy can be in so many different arenas! She thanked and celebrated therapists who were active in political spheres and lobbying on the Hill as OT advocates; program instructors and directors; state and national OT association leaders; practicing therapists who represented every possible area of practice; and therapists who had come from across the world to represent their nations as delegates to the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. No matter where your talents lie, you can make a difference in the profession and for the consumers of this profession. It was definitely food for thought, seeing all the different avenues I could take once I get my degree. Good thing I have two years to think it all over!

Finally, after all the awards and recognition took place came the part of the ceremony I had been waiting for. My family has a long military history, and I always knew I wanted to work with wounded warriors. And in yet another odd twist of fate (directed by God, I’m absolutely certain!) this year’s keynote “speech” was to be given by three wounded warriors who had received occupational therapy with my hero and role model Erik Johnson – AKA the Army OT Guy.

…I mean, could things have been any more perfect? Seriously. SERIOUSLY.

So there I was after months of waiting, nearly jumping out of my seat with excitement to see these guys speak! Because they are all amazing people and the embodiment of how important occupational therapy is to people all over the world today!

The format of the keynote was pretty cool – President Stoffel sat down with the three speakers and asked them a series of pretty open-ended questions about their experiences with injury, recovery and how occupational therapy impacted their lives. And boy, did they keep the answers coming!

Travis Mills, one of the speakers, is one of only five living quadruple amputees in the United States. And he is absolutely hilarious! When Stoffel asked him what some of his first thoughts were upon waking up and realizing the state of his physical impairments, he made a comment that I thought was adorable at first. He said something about not knowing what was going to happen or who was going to take care of him, and said that “I knew my wife wasn’t going anywhere.”

Sweet, right?

Wrong! He immediately followed that up with, “I mean, I was still getting full benefits, sooo…”

LOL. Juuuuuust too funny! (I guess unless you’re his wife…yikes!)

After the laughter died down, Travis got serious and talked very candidly about how occupational therapy helped him be the husband and father he wanted to be, even after his injuries. He described how his driving rehab occupational therapist helped get him back on the road so that he could take a long trip with his wife and young daughter. He discussed how humiliating it was to have others take care of his toileting needs and how thankful he was that he gained the skills to be able to do that and many other things independently with the help from his occupational therapists. Seeing this hulking 250 lb man talk about how re-learning things that many people – including myself – take for granted every day so that he could go about his life as normally as possible just served to further cement my conviction that this career is without a doubt the only one for me. He also does speaking engagement across the country, and you can find out more about him and his experiences at his website:

The other two speakers, Monte Bernardo and Tim Donley, were a little bit less saucy, but equally as moving. I found Tim Donley’s responses to Stoffel’s questions very moving and heartfelt, and I just wished I could give him a hug! He is only 22 years old, and he is a double amputee with an amazing spirit and strikingly beautiful eyes. I was fortunate enough to get to talk to him a little bit earlier that day when I ditched my volunteer post to go and get my picture with him and Erik Johnson. We talked for a little while about the trials and tribulations that come with looking so young and he was so friendly and approachable! Little did I know what he had in store, though!

As Stoffel concluded the keynote conversation with these three amazing men, she informed us that Tim had a surprise in store. And what came next honestly made me cry.

With the live band that had performed earlier, Tim Donley sang a hauntingly melodious version of “Hallelujah.” I wish I had thought to record it, but I’m sure my camera couldn’t have done it justice. Apparently he had been an avid musician before sustaining his injuries, and occupational therapy helped him return to making music! And thank God for that, because the man can sing! I was wiping tears and saying hallelujah myself long before he was done.

Hallelujah - Tim Donley
This picture can’t do a bit of justice to represent just how moving the experience of hearing Tim sing live actually was!


With the end of Tim’s song came a standing ovation, and then before I knew it the opening ceremony was over. People were grabbing up their things and heading out the door in a mad rush to get to the Expo’s grand opening, but I found that I couldn’t move quite yet. I was just perfectly content to stand, take it all in and enjoy the feeling of being awash in a sea of awestruck wonder at all of the powerful moments I had been able to experience that day.


Thanks for reading this SUPER long post, and stay tuned for Part II of my conference experiences!

6 thoughts on “AOTA Conference 2014 Recap: Part I

  1. Inspired OT Padawan April 9, 2014 / 2:15 am

    This sounds fantastic! I want to go now!!! 😀

    • lej1123 April 9, 2014 / 5:07 pm

      Thanks for commenting! It was definitely an amazing experience!

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