Integrative Education (IE) is excited to kick off a new series of blogs, the Speaker Spotlight, to highlight IE speaker’s stories and passions. Each one of us has a journey full of experiences that impact our perspective, inform how/why we became therapists along with how we continue to show up as therapists. We hope you enjoy the glimpse into the lives of those that inspire us!
Eileen Richter is the first of our speakers to spotlight since she was instrumental in the creation of Integrative Education, partnering with us to bring to fruition the 2019 IE
Symposium. Richter currently has two courses available with Integrative Education: A Little about MORE (a COMPLIMENTARY one-hour on-demand course, available now) and the on-demand foundational course, M.O.R.E.: Integrating the Mouth and Sensory and Postural
Functions (11-hour course co-taught with Patricia Oetter). During our conversation, Richter shared her journey to becoming an occupational therapy practitioner (OTP) and the evolving course of her career (including partnerships with numerous renowned OTPs), in addition to her contributions to M.O.R.E (Motor, Oral, Respiration, Eyes) and her involvement with Camp Avanti.
As a young adolescent, Richter was introduced to the field of occupational therapy (OT) by her mother. Richter’s mother worked as a dietician at the Cambridge State Hospital in her home state of Minnesota. After attending an in-service by the OTP at the hospital, her mother immediately thought that OT would be a good fit for Eileen. As a high school student, Richter herself became involved at the state hospital. One experience that would later impact her work with sensory integration involved assisting the hospital’s dentist in carrying out a study related to dental hygiene and the efficacy of electric toothbrushes. Richter was tasked with brushing patients’ teeth twice per day with electric toothbrushes. While most participants were initially quite averse to the task, within a couple of days, she noticed an incredible shift. Not only were the participants more willing to have their teeth brushed, most actually liked it and were happy to participate in the toothbrushing task as well as interact positively with Richter and her colleagues. Little did she know, she would one day take that experience to the next level by providing vibration therapeutically to her clients as an OT.
While most new-grad OTPs can find their first jobs out of school a bit overwhelming, Richter was certainly no exception. Upon graduating, she moved across the country to California and accepted her first position at the Children’s Hospital in Oakland in 1970. At a time when OT was a lesser-known field (especially in pediatrics), Richter found herself as the sole therapist charged with setting up a brand-new OT department. Luckily, Richter was able to use her self-described “action-oriented” personality to seek out the right resources and professionals (including local colleague Dr. A. Jean Ayers) to effectively build a successful program at the hospital.
After a short but robust 3-year stint in California, Richter returned to Minnesota. Around this time, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed, requiring that all public schools that received federal funding must provide equal access to education for students with physical and/or mental disabilities. Once again, Richter found herself as the only OTP, tasked with building a program in a brand-new school designed to serve children with developmental disabilities. While she and her colleagues worked to provide quality care and education for their students, Richter again sought out further education and resources to support their programs. During her time with St. Paul Public Schools, Richter facilitated access to several continuing education opportunities for her and her colleagues in areas such as sensory integration and Neuro Developmental Treatment (NDT) taught by notable clinicians including Patricia Wilbarger and Dr. A. Jean Ayres.
This passion for providing educational opportunities for her colleagues paired with the general lack of pediatric OT coursework at the time is what sparked Richter’s interest in becoming an educator herself. Her work shifted to providing educational opportunities for other occupational therapists, physical therapists (PTs), healthcare professionals, and educators throughout the state of Minnesota. During this time, Richter kept a pulse on the new and emerging practices within the field which led her to some key partnerships, including her work with Patti Oetter and Sheila Frick, which resulted in the development of the M.O.R.E course.
Richter’s company, Professional Development Programs (PDP), offered many in-person continuing education courses across the country, and an annual conference, the PDP Symposium, which spanned over 30 years of bringing together pediatric therapists in Minnesota to learn from innovative speakers. After selling PDP in 2009, Richter reignited her passion into a new company, the Richter Active Integrative Resources (RAIR), and held the RAIR Symposium from 2014 to 2018. Under Richter’s guidance, founder, Heather Schmidt, partnered with her and the RAIR Symposium to hold the first annual IE Symposium in 2019.
Richter credits much of her ability to build connections with a vast network of renowned OTPs to her involvement with Camp Avanti. In the mid-1980s, Richter and Nancy Lawton-Shirley became interested in Patricia Wilbarger’s Avanti model camp program and worked with Wilbarger to replicate Camp Avanti in Hudson, WI. Since 1986, Camp Avanti has drawn on the experience of both seasoned and novice OTPs to provide holistic, sensory integrative intervention strategies to child and adolescent camp participants. Camp Avanti integrates a variety of modalities including water, horses, music, and the outdoors into the program providing campers and therapists alike with a beautiful, immersive opportunity to grow and learn. Read more about Camp Avanti here: Camp Avanti: A Holistic, Sensory Integrative Summer Camp and Intensive Mentorship Model (integrativeed.com).
In addition to her work in providing educational opportunities, Richter has also developed a variety of therapeutic equipment. The Baby Boundex™ is Richter’s most recent product to hit the market. The original idea was sparked by Richter's desire to provide her infant granddaughter with a safe space for movement in a small home with multiple pets (making traditional floor time activities difficult). This resulted in the creation of a Pack-N-Play of sorts formed with a PVC pipe frame, foam matting, and lycra sheets. Richter soon recognized that this idea had the potential to aid children beyond her own granddaughter. Knowing the amazing benefits of lycra as a treatment modality, but also recognizing the constraints of most suspended lycra systems being limited to in-clinic use, Richter began to explore an option to provide a smaller, more mobile lycra structure for therapeutic use with infants and young children. Over several years, Richter distributed various prototypes to colleagues for research and development as well as worked with a variety of engineers, manufacturers, and distributors. The Baby Boundex™, in its current form, is a steel frame wrapped in foam with several layers of lycra suspended from it. Its small size and portability features make it perfect for use in the clinic, home, and beyond. It provides a unique sensorimotor experience for infants and young children as they push and pull against the fabric to build strength, coordination, and motor patterns, explore, and challenge gravity, and promote vestibular integration - among many other benefits!
Before ending our conversation, I asked Richter to share any parting thoughts or words of wisdom with OTs who are newer to the profession. She shared a few key thoughts related to the overall trajectory of the field as well as advice for new clinicians seeking continuing education opportunities. While she recognizes the importance of research and development of evidenced-based treatment strategies, she feels that this emphasis is beginning to fall out of balance with the focus on the clinical work and interactions of the profession. Richter explains that while our clinical practice is based on research, translating research to practice is an art and an experience-based skill that she feels is not being emphasized enough in students and new clinicians. She also encourages new clinicians to not shy away from exploring new ideas in their practice, because that is exactly what drives the research that is needed to build and support our profession going forward. Finally, Richter strongly encourages new clinicians exploring continuing education opportunities to first seek out a variety of foundational courses. Rather than jumping into highly specialized courses, she explains the importance of first seeking a better understanding of the “basics” including child development, motor development, and sensory integration. Richter explains that, without a strong foundation in these areas, it becomes more difficult to put the skills and approaches learned in a more sophisticated course to good use.
Eileen Richter serves as an incredible model for the importance of life-long learning and the power of building connections with others. The field of occupational therapy has been and continues to be positively impacted by her many contributions. Be sure to check out Integrativeed.com to learn more about Richter’s work and her upcoming course offerings.