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Experience is the Best Teacher of All: Life Lessons from Rhoda Erhardt

By: Catherine Schwartz, MA, OTR/L

As a practicing occupational therapist (OT), I can tell you that I was beyond excited to interview and feature Rhoda Erhardt on the Integrative Education blog. Rhoda is a brilliant therapist who has contributed to the field of occupational therapy in countless ways.

She is a true OT pioneer. We originally planned to meet for a one hour virtual interview, but it quickly became apparent that we were going to need more time. To be honest, even after we met for a second time, I feel like I was just beginning to scratch the surface of Rhoda’s background, career, contributions, and accomplishments to the field. Rhoda is a wealth of knowledge and has so much to offer therapists just embarking on their professional careers. It only seemed fitting to have Rhoda share her wisdom. When asked what advice she would give to emerging therapists, Rhoda was happy to share four pieces of knowledge that she not only gives to others, but that she lived by herself when advancing her career and growing in her personal life.

1. Encourage Yourself to be Curious

Rhoda truly believes it best to avoid setting expectations for yourself in both your professional and personal life. This way you can be delighted when something works out, instead of being disappointed that something didn’t. Rhoda doesn’t even like the use of the word “hope” as it leaves too much room for disappointment and failure. Rhoda shares that curiosity has been a staple in her life and has driven her desire to continue to learn more.

When looking back on her early days, Rhoda told me she grew up in a family where it was expected that you go to college and have a career. Rhoda shared that when she was in high school she didn’t want a career, primarily due to the fact that she didn’t want to be gone all the time like her own successful business-driven mother was. What Rhoda really wanted to do was get married and be a mother. However, she recognized that she needed to go to college and pick a major. With no career ambition or college majors in mind, Rhoda leaned into her curiosity and met with her school’s guidance counselor who gave her an aptitude test to see what may be a good fit for Rhoda. The counselor told Rhoda, “You are so interested in so many things, have you ever thought of being an occupational therapist?”. Rhoda had never heard of it, but was open to learning about the curriculum. When she heard it involved general medical classes along with coursework in child development, crafts, and household tasks; it really sounded appealing to Rhoda. Rhoda was drawn to occupational therapy and left her home state of New Jersey to enroll in the University of Illinois, wanting to get as far away from home as possible. She was drawn to exploring new places and learning as much as she could.

Rhoda once again leaned into this curiosity as she completed fieldwork in several states and several settings, and even accepted her first job with the US Army in San Antonio, Texas. Rhoda describes herself as a lifelong learner and she feels strongly that it is important to never stop learning. This drive and attitude allowed many doors to be opened for Rhoda, and kept an open mind to these opportunities.

2. Work as Hard as you Can- It always pays off!

Rhoda is one of the most driven people I have ever spoken to, paving her own way professionally and personally. Rhoda was a divorcee in the 1960s and had four small children at home. After staying home with her children for 10 years, Rhoda was now a single mother looking to get back into the field of occupational therapy. This proved to be a challenge as there were no occupational therapy jobs to be found in her current state of North Dakota. After securing a temporary job working for the county as a tax property assessor, she began taking continuing education courses and volunteering at a local hospital. Determined to use her OT skills, she networked and created her own job with Easter Seal, creating a Mobile Therapy Unit. With this Unit, Rhoda would go into homes, hospitals, home health agencies, and more. She would train professionals, teachers, parents, etc. During this time, Rhoda made an arrangement with her boss that she could work full time with an altered schedule. Rhoda would work 9AM-3PM and then completed two hours of paperwork each night at home. This would allow her to be home when her children got home from school. Rhoda worked very hard to secure and maintain this role as an occupational therapist and was the only OT working in the state of North Dakota at this time. She continued to work hard and started securing contract jobs with various school districts and eventually starting her own business.

The idea of working hard continued to be an essential part of Rhoda’s career. Rhoda went on to achieve many accomplishments including writing several books, articles, and chapters in books. She created her own company Erhardt Developmental Products, and opened her own private practice in the Twin Cities, MN. Rhoda also served as a consultant for many prominent companies, including Gerber. She also coordinated for an occupational therapy intensive model embedded in a camp setting in Wisconsin, Camp Avanti. This list of achievements is truly just the tip of the iceberg for all of the things Rhoda accomplished, but each one of them serve as an example of how hard she had to work to be able to list each and every one of them.

3. Spend Time with Professionals who Prioritize and are Knowledgeable about Relationships

Rhoda could not emphasize enough how important it was to surround yourself with others who are strong in their relationship skills. Rhoda was lucky enough to have many professionals who helped her in this area, including Beatrice (Bea) Wad, her program director at the University of Illinois. Rhoda described her as an innovative leader who not only served as Rhoda’s mentor during her college days, but also kept in touch with her students after they had graduated. Bea demonstrated this importance of relationships by collecting Christmas cards and letters from each of her students and combining them all into one newsletter to share everyone’s latest updates with each other. It was evident this was a very special memory for Rhoda, and she was still touched that someone of such importance at her college would prioritize this for her former student.

Rhoda relied on her interpersonal and relationship skills as she grew her career and personal connections after starting a family. As mentioned above, Rhoda worked for a short time as a county tax property assessor. As part of this job she would knock on the doors of homeowners when assessing homes. During one of these home visits she met a woman who she felt a connection with. She noticed this woman’s demeanor and how she interacted with a little girl in her home. Rhoda knew she was a special woman and asked if she would help care for her own children when she had to travel. The woman agreed and became an important childcare provider for her children. It was these relational skills that Rhoda relied on to develop this special relationship, a relationship that was needed as a young single parent who was traveling a lot.

Rhoda had started doing free occupational therapy talks in North Dakota at various places including, nursing homes, Rotary Clubs, etc. The more free engagements she had, the more networking she did. This led to invitations for paid opportunities to teach at conferences across the country. Rhoda also wrote her first book during this time, a book about hand function, and this led to more networking opportunities and opened more doors for speaking engagements. The pattern here is that the more Rhoda relied on her relationship skills to build her brand and business, the more connected she became.

Rhoda also speaks to the importance of relationships when speaking about her beloved Camp Avanti. Rhoda, along with many other professionals welcomed campers with special needs for a wonderful week of summer camp. Rhoda would engage in a few days of learning at the Pre-Camp Conference with other professionals, then the camp would officially start. This entire week was built upon relationships- relationships with other professionals, relationships with the campers, relationships with the campers’ parents, and so on. It was evident that Rhoda relied on her relationships to grow in her personal and professional life. In a world of digital connections, it is important to remember the importance of our human connection.

4. Don’t be Afraid to Make Mistakes

Rhoda is passionate about the idea of never, ever feeling like you have to be perfect. With so much pressure on students and young professionals, Rhoda feels like today’s therapists are often in search of perfection. As a strong, independent therapist, mother, and business owner, she was very matter of fact when she stated, “I have no regrets about anything that happened to me in my life because it makes you who you are.” She was adamant that our life experiences make us stronger, give us confidence in who we are and prepare us for the next thing that may be worse. We would all be wise to live a life driven by Rhoda’s insights, as she has truly continues to live a life worthy of such adornment.

I am so thankful to Rhoda for sharing her words of wisdom and story with me, but most of all her time. She is someone that is so easy to talk to, so optimistic and gracious. We could all benefit from focusing on these pieces of advice as we navigate through this life, not only as therapists but as friends, spouses, parents, daughters/sons, and more.



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