COVID Response



From gym to jungle: Milligan OT students transform gym for special needs children

Elizabeth Reece (left) and Morgan Martino are students in Milligan College’s Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT) program, and presented their research recently during the MSOT Research Symposium.

The new mural at the Palmer Center.

MILLIGAN COLLEGE, Tenn. (May 4, 2015) — The gymnasium at the Palmer Center, an early childhood learning center within Kingsport City School in Kingsport, Tennessee, clearly needed some work.

“Our gym had virtually nothing,” said Jill Tursam, a certified occupational therapy assistant at the Palmer Center, which serves a mixed population of children, including kids with special needs such as autism, physical impairments, Down syndrome and developmental delay.

“It was a very stark, bright white space,” she added. “It could be offensive for a lot of our children, especially for those with sensory defensiveness.”

For two students in Milligan College’s Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT) program, Elizabeth Reece and Morgan Martino, the gym’s white space was a blank canvas for a work of art.

“They came in with the purpose to make that gym more kid friendly,” said Tursam.

As part of their final research project in the MSOT program, Reece and Martino spent roughly 16 months planning how to transform the gym into a sensory experience for the children at the Palmer Center.

Armed with grant funding, they went to work, hiring local artist Suzanne Barrett Justis to paint an Amazon-themed mural on the wall replete with a huge leopard, colorful frogs and beautiful butterflies.

For children with tactile defensiveness—an aversion to and fear of touch sensations—the sensory table they built gives children a chance to get more subtle stimulation from objects with various textures and sensations.

The therapy swing will help students improve balance and spatial orientation, and the crash pad—a large pad designed for children to jump onto—helps them get “deep pressure” sensations, said Tursam, and “learn where their body is in space.”

“Research shows that learning is facilitated through the senses,” said Reece, who’s from Church Hill, Tennessee. “Our goal from the beginning was to add features to the Palmer Center that would help children with tactile defensiveness learn more.”

“The crash pad and sensory table also will enable those children to get much-needed social interaction from their peers,” said Martino, who’s from Kingsport. “They can learn from each other.”

Both students will graduate in December 2015. Reece plans to stay in the Tri-Cities after graduation and is interested in possibly working as an occupational therapist in pediatrics, adult orthopedics or skilled nursing facilities. Martino plans to become an occupational therapist in either an acute care or inpatient rehabilitation setting working with adults.

“One of the reasons I love supervising grad projects is because they serve a dual purpose,” said Dr. Christy Fellers, associate professor of occupational therapy.
“Our students are learning the art and practice of occupational therapy through the experience of serving others, and those we serve benefit from our students’ learning and labors of love.”

“These projects fit perfectly with the mission of Milligan College, which is to honor God by educating men and women to become servant leaders,” added Fellers.

For Tursam, the project transformed the gym—the crash pad being a particular favorite.

“We have a line of children in the gym waiting on their turn,” she said.

For additional information about Milligan’s MSOT program, call 423.975.8010 or email MSOT@Milligan.edu.

To learn more about Milligan, visit www.milligan.edu.


MILLIGAN UNIVERSITY is a Christian liberal arts university in Northeast Tennessee whose vision is to change lives and shape culture through a commitment to servant leadership. The university offers more than 100 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees and concentrations in a variety of fields, along with graduate and adult degree completion programs.  To learn more about Milligan University, visit www.milligan.edu or call 800-262-8337.

« Back to News & Events