This month's speaker spotlight features occupational therapy practitioner (OTP), Kim Barthel. Kim has a rich educational and professional journey which has granted her the opportunity to build a truly holistic approach to occupational therapy (OT) as well as share her wealth of knowledge with others as an educator. In a recent conversation, Kim shared her journey with me and I was continually astounded by the connections she has developed with other well-known OTs as well as her consistent willingness to take chances and follow her heart.
For many, the road to realizing our calling as an OT can be a long one. However, that was not the case for Kim. At the young age of nine, she knew she wanted to be an OT. In childhood, she had a fair amount of exposure to children with disabilities and she knew that she wanted to do something not only meaningful but unique. It started when she was a volunteer as a Brownie (Girl Guides) in a children's institution when she met an OT and was inspired by her creativity and ability to solve problems. From that experience forward, Kim set her mind to becoming an OT and never looked back.
Kim entered OT school in 1981 and was inspired by one of her professors to explore a relatively new and unknown concept at the time, Sensory Integration (SI). The professor had a 3-year-old granddaughter with significant learning disabilities and asked Kim to join her in her home to help treat her granddaughter using a SI treatment approach. This experience was her introduction to the power of SI. Her first student practicum was in an outpatient mental health facility and her practicum supervisor, Anne Strock worked primarily with people with Cluster B personality disorders, psychosis, and depression using cutting-edge SI in her mental health practice. These early experiences solidified her decision to specialize in pediatrics, mental health, and SI.
Shortly after graduating from OT school in 1984, Kim had a chance encounter that would shape her trajectory in the field of OT. While attending a Sensory Integration conference in New Mexico, Kim ended up sitting next to Temple Grandin. She had no idea who Grandin was, and autism was poorly understood at the time across the board. Kim was enamored by Grandin's stories including her perceptions of experiencing sensations from the inside out, and over the next years Grandin became Kim’s first real influencer in this regard.
During a short practicum at the Ayres Clinic in California, Kim was encouraged by Dr. A. Jean Ayres to develop an understanding of "the body”, and Neurodevelopmental Treatment (NDT) was highly recommended as the next step in her learning. Her first teacher was NDT Instructor, Hélène Larin (in Eastern Canada), followed by exposure and training from Berta Bobath, Mary Quinton, and many esteemed NDT instructors along the way. Kim describes this time as a critical period in her career when she was taking formal training in both SI (from Shelly Lane, Winnie Dunn and others) and NDT at the same time. It was in the late 80s when she began thinking holistically and embracing parallel tracks (focusing on both SI and NDT).
Kim recalls her coursework and instruction in NDT as being very difficult and feeling like she just wasn’t very good at it. Fortunately, much to her surprise, at the conclusion of the course she was asked to consider the path towards instructorship. Despite being only 25 years old, Kim said “Sure!” and embarked on yet another adventure. While training to become a certified NDT instructor, Kim also opened her own private practice which was the first freestanding OT clinic in Western Canada. While this was, no doubt, a stressful and challenging time in her young career, she attributes much of her persistence to the mentorship she received from NDT-OT Instructor, Regi Boehme. Kim describes Boehme as a powerful force in influencing her life, not just because of her work in NDT, but because of who she was as a person. Boehme also introduced Kim to personal growth, Journey Workshops, and Regi’s passion for the mind-body connection. Boehme placed a high value on Holotropic Breathwork, Craniosacral Therapy, Myofascial Release, and most importantly, the idea that bringing your best self to the therapeutic process is a therapeutic tool.
After some post-graduate studies in rehabilitation medicine focusing on kinesiology and neuroscience, Kim decided to alter course and pursue international work supporting children orphaned by war in Eastern Europe. She was also a consultant supporting children and youth at high risk in Winnipeg, which cemented her desire to serve in the areas of mental health and trauma. Combining these interests with her experience with special needs, Kim was invited to support kids in the Arctic of Canada. During one fateful trip to Rankin Inlet at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, she met the community’s Adult Educator, Bob Spensley and his 3 year-old daughter Lista, and fell in love with them both. All three soon decided Kim would move to the North to live with them (even without a job). To do this she had to close her clinic in Winnipeg, and basically change her life completely. As fate would have it, within minutes of landing in the airport to start this new life, she was offered an incredible job opportunity to create mental health services for children across the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut.
Kim describes her work in the Arctic of Canada as “probably the hardest thing I've ever done”. The Arctic conditions were barren and cold and when she first arrived there she remembers feeling as if she had just landed on the moon. On top of the harsh environment, the location was home to some of the highest rates in the world of both suicide and sexual abuse. Despite the overwhelming nature of the work, Kim learned a lot about listening, doing needs assessments, working in systems, deeply appreciating culture as an influence on one’s being, and the impact of colonization. Additionally, by moving to the Arctic she instantly became a Mom which made her appreciate the realities of parenting all the more. She explains that this stage of life and experiences set the framework for all the work she does now.
During her time living in the Arctic, Kim also embarked on a volunteer project in Trinidad and Tobago, helping support the creation of the country’s developing pediatric therapy services. During that month-long experience (with Bob and Lista in tow), while snorkeling on Kim’s one day off they happened to very briefly meet a wind energy developer from Germany. Bob and this gentleman got along great, and they half-heartedly imagined they might one day, together, bring wind energy to Canada. While nothing immediately came of that conversation, 6 months later it would become a crucial part of their story. Within a few months of returning to the Arctic, Kim received a job offer to develop mental health services in the Seychelles, off the east coast of Africa. Kim and Bob made the decision to accept this huge change which meant leaving both of their impactful, all-consuming jobs in the Arctic and dispersing themselves of the majority of their belongings. After they had left the North and their packed bags were labeled to go and live across the globe, 9/11 happened. This tragic event, among many other things, immediately shifted the Seychelle program’s funding away from mental health to “security”. So their plane never took off, and in this new era of fear and uncertainty, Kim, Bob and 5 year-old Lista suddenly found themselves without jobs, a home, or a sense of what to do next.
Following their instincts, they decided Bob should call the wind energy developer they’d met underwater in Tobago, and as soon as planes would fly Bob was in Germany learning as much as he could about growing a multi-faceted business. While it’s not mentioned in her resumé, this new and against-the-odds meaningful venture could have not have happened without Kim’s involvement, for which Bob will always be grateful. Accepting the voluntary position of secretary and bookkeeper for its first couple of years, Kim also supported Bob through many corporate learning experiences as Sequoia Energy became instrumental in pioneering the wind energy industry in the prairies of Canada and the US. With Bob mostly on the road for about 14 years, this stage also afforded Kim the time and opportunity to dive deep into parenting, and as the company grew, she was increasingly able to pursue her own teaching and writing.
Kim continued to expand her passion for the mind-body connection concept. This led her to create her “Moving to Higher Ground” model, a camp-based mentorship program for a range of clinicians, inspired in part by Regi’s Journey Workshops and her early experiences at Camp Avanti. After several years of delivering this program supported by amazing OT, PT and SLP colleagues, Kim remembers walking down a beach by herself and questioning what she should do next. She wrestled with the decision of either following her passion for neuroscience and teaching a more “black and white” science-based model - or - following her passion towards the spiritual connection to the therapeutic process. While pondering her next steps, Kim looked down the beach and noticed two parallel wheelchair paths in the sand… that eventually merged into one. She took this as a clear sign. Rather than choose between her two passions, she knew they must be combined. Since then, she has boldly and consistently put the integration of her scientific and spiritual learnings at the forefront of her work and teachings.
The learnings kept coming for Kim. Another deep influence has been the contributions of Attachment Theory – in this case, it’s been approximately 15 years and counting of studying the work of Dr. Pat Crittenden, Dr. Bruce Perry, Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Rob Sapolsky among others.
Additionally, Kim has focused much of her direction in recent years on the broad area of trauma. She attributes much of her recent growth and exposure in this area to another chance encounter that occurred in 2012. She was speaking at a televised conference related to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process in Winnipeg, and her originally planned topic was on The Science of Resilience. At the first break, the organizer approached Kim with a problem - the next speaker was no longer able to attend. She asked her to continue speaking for an additional 3 hours without preparation. Not one to turn away from a challenge, she agreed and used the opportunity to speak from the hip about the connection between attachment and trauma. Theo Fleury, a famous Canadian hockey player who was also to be a speaker later in the day, happened to be listening. Fleury had just finished writing his game-changing autobiography, “Playing with Fire” in which he shared his many triumphs and struggles, including being sexually abused by his coach as a junior hockey player. At the end of her talk , Fleury walked over to Kim and bluntly told her “You just changed my life and I think you’re going to work with me for the rest of yours.” Once again, Kim stepped into an unprecedented opportunity. Their collaboration as unexpected friends led them to co-authoring a book about healing called “Conversations with a Rattlesnake: Raw and Honest Reflections on Healing and Trauma” which went on to become a Canadian bestseller.
At this point in her 38-year career, Kim’s mission is clearly about “Supporting the conscious evolution of the human spirit”. She does this via Relationship Matters, the little company with big goals that she started with Bob in 2014. Kim reports he couldn’t not join her, “He says a point came when what I was doing became too meaningful for him not to fully support.” Combining forces professionally allows them to travel together endlessly, both in-person and virtually, maintaining and expanding connections with outstanding colleagues and friends across the globe. They invest a lot of energy both voluntarily and professionally in complex contexts and often different cultures and have a strong desire to support development initiatives they believe in. Some examples include work in areas of poverty, social challenge, conflict, and natural disasters, with some highlights being invited into remote Indigenous communities across Canada, in the Himalayas of India, the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Asia Pacific, Australia and most recently, virtually with people in and around Ukraine.
As our conversation came to its end, Kim offered one final piece of advice. She simply encouraged others to “follow your heart.” She’s done just that throughout her entire life and doing so is what’s shaped her incredibly dynamic and impactful career. She explained how it works, “Following your heart allows you to become connected to your passions and fuels you to do whatever it is that makes you be your best self.”