INSPIRE the Groups You Lead!

Jeff Witman, Ed.D., CTRS
Collier Township Parks & Recreation

Effective group leadership is fundamental to success as a recreation professional. Groups can help (e.g., synergy) but groups can also hurt (e.g., groupthink).

Synergy = an interaction or cooperation giving rise to a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts (Wikipedia)

Groupthink = a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible. (Psychology Today)

 The leader can influence which way it goes. Here’s an acronym to focus on as you lead, facilitate, guide, coach, nurture, direct and serve the groups you work with. These 9 characteristics can make a difference!


I = Integrity

As Alan Simpson suggested, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters; If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” Fairness and honesty create a culture of integrity. Being genuine creates a bond with group members. Tip: Consider group agreements, as pictured below, to promote accountability. (These are from the leadership program at Dickinson College)

N = Nurturance

Leave people better than you found them. Be intentional about assessing where group members are and where they would like to be. You can’t nurture unless you know what’s needed and wanted. In addition, consider the creature comforts which make group gatherings more engaging and comfortable.  Tip: Establish a distinctive group identity. For example, Wellspan Philhaven chaplains recently developed the A-I-R (Acknowledge- Inspire- Reflect) frame of reference for their groups.

S = Support

Levels to consider- information, encouragement, honest feedback and assistance with tasks. The classic example with that last one: you’re moving, who shows up to help? Encourage group members to be of service to others- when you give you get! Tip- Spend some time with groups determining where they’re at. Any “baggage” they’re bringing along to your group?

P = Professionalism

The ideal- responsible, ethical and team-oriented. A key with this is focusing on the group (not on yourself) as you lead. Tip- Keep fairness in mind as you interact with the group. As Willie Stargell declared “Everybody is somebody!” Don’t let the “squeaky wheels” get all of the grease.

I = Innovation

While routines are important unless there’s novelty they will become ruts. Engage the group in determining how things can work better. Adopt an approach that change is an opportunity not a threat. Tip- Identify several aspects of a particular group where variety might spice things up- for example the music, the snack and the stretches for an exercise group. Engage participants in identifying alternatives for each and test them out in subsequent group sessions.

R = Resilience

Show some grit- persistence + passion = thriving not just surviving. Make some lemonade out of the lemons situations throw at you. Devote some effort to self-care recognizing that your effectiveness depends on being the best version of yourself. Tip- Model resilience with the attitude and actions you exhibit when “shift happens”. Demonstrate that “well-prepared people create their own weather” with a plan B or plan C that allows the group to cope not mope.

E = Energy, Empathy and Efficacy

With energy consider vitality, a combination of vim (the burst needed sometimes) and vigor (endurance). With empathy it’s about communicating your understanding of another person’s emotions. To promote efficacy determine and document that the groups you lead are, in fact, generating the outcomes you promote and promise. Tips- For energy consider a 30- minute limit on sitting during groups. With empathy institute a no disses approach where negativity about self or others is not allowed. Remember too that “silver lining” remarks are seldom helpful. If a participant says “My car needs a lot of repairs” and you say “At least you have a car” it’s not going to improve the situation. For efficacy find out if your goals are being met. With the recent Pickleball Camp at Collier Township for example the majority of participants have increased their amount of play.

A Case Study

The support group I was leading at Faith Friendship was not very supportive. Low morale, limited interaction and apparent disinterest. We needed a boost and found one with an activity that, amazingly, has been found to:

Relieve Stress

• Reduce Anxiety
• Improve Sleep
• Heighten Focus
• Improve Motor Skills
• Induce A Meditative State
• Relax your Brain and
  • Improve Brain Function

The answer was making the activity below a regular part of the group, integrating it into our themes and allowing group members to utilize it as a tool for coping. This activity, obviously, is not the answer for every group concern or problem. There are answers however if you’re willing to try new approaches. Find the attitude, activity or process that can revitalize and reinvigorate the groups you lead. it’s a win-win for participants and for you!

Coloring: Not just for kids anymore!


Essential Services: Activities and Recreational Therapy Professionals Making A Difference! Part 2

Compiled by Jeff Witman, CTRS, FDRT, Professor Emeritus, Applied Behavioral Sciences, York College of PA

With this blog we follow the progression of specific impacts at a facility and look to the future. There has never been a time with a greater need for communities to collaborate in their support of long term care and other healthcare organizations.
Emily Connors, CTRS, CDP, Therapeutic Recreation Supervisor, Masonic Village at Elizabethtown

March 2020 This month started off like usual, with much excitement for St. Patrick’s Day, trips and outings, programs, entertainment and laughter! No one expected, or could have been prepared for, the impact of COVID-19. Here at the Masonic Village at Elizabethtown, things came to a grinding halt instantly. Families were not allowed to visit. Vendors were not permitted on campus. All campus entrances were closed, except for one, and only staff members were permitted. Residents in the health care and personal care areas were told they needed to remain in their rooms at all times. There was a lot of anxiety, fear and questions. Things we had never considered as regular practices, were now in discussion. Decisions were made and changes occurred daily – sometimes several times a day – based on the situation. For our therapeutic recreation department, our concerns instantly focused on our residents now being in their rooms. Thoughts regarding their emotional, social, cognitive and physical health were swirling at our meetings. What we had always done (encouraging residents to socialize and be engaged in leisure) was now not safe for them to do. This idea went against all of our training, education and experience. Not only was our staff concerned for our residents, but the fear within the communities and our homes was unable to be ignored. Shortly after the decision for residents to remain in their rooms was made and implemented, our team quickly realized the connection to families was so important to figure out. Within one week, we had an iPad for each neighborhood. Our staff received training on Zoom and FaceTime and quickly found themselves training families on this technology. These video chats became a lifeline for many. In addition to the challenge of connecting families, our team realized the need for residents to continue to be engaged. We were able to utilize our technology and capability for livestreaming on our campus television channel. By April 1, we were able to distribute therapeutic recreation calendars to all of our residents that included physical programs selected by our wellness department, music by our music therapy department, spiritual programs by our spiritual care department and a variety of cognitive, educational and special event programs provided by our department. Our entire team across campus pulled together to provide livestream programming that would meet the needs of our residents and continue to keep them engaged, despite having to remain in their rooms. Bingo was a challenge for us to figure out because it was so important to all of our residents on campus. We were able to livestream our bingo software onto the resident televisions and call the numbers, as well. We now have residents in our retirement living, personal care and health care areas playing along with our virtual bingo each Friday.

August 2020 Things look much different this month! In addition to our active livestream program schedule, we are looking forward to beginning small group implementation. With the COVID-19 situation so fluid, we need to prepare while being flexible, as things can change quickly yet again. We have learned so much through this. Our need to adapt and push ourselves to grow in ways we couldn’t imagine has helped us in the long run. We now know how to utilize technology to connect families who live in other states and previously would not have had the opportunity to visit. We now know how to utilize our livestreaming capabilities to bring engaging programs to residents, even during times such as flu outbreaks or further COVID outbreaks. We now know how strong our teams are and how much we can depend on each other.

Kim Sullivan, CTRS, Resident Experience Director, The Haven at Springwood

COVID-19 has brought much chaos to my work environment, but I remind myself daily that the chaos I experience cannot compete with what my residents have been dealing with for almost six months. When news began to break about the seriousness of COVID-19 and residents found themselves isolated to their rooms, there was a lot of fear and anxiousness surrounding the virus and wanting to know just how long all of this was going to last. My department turned on its heels to move in a completely different direction in regards to programming–at first, my residents found novelty and delight in seeing what we would come up with next. How we would make life feel as “normal” as it could under these circumstances. How we would keep them connected to their loved ones. Six months later, the novelty has worn off in many ways. But with all that has changed in the last six months, my department and my team have remained constant–we have and always will be committed to supporting our residents’ well-being. We will stretch our creativity and flexibility to the ends of the earth to provide for them. I have learned many things traversing this pandemic while working in long term care, but two of the most important are, 1) I am stronger emotionally than I ever thought possible, and have found strength in others as well as been the strength for my residents. And, 2) I have built stronger bonds with my residents and their families more in these last six months than I have in my entire career in this field. I have known the importance of recreation therapy and seen its impact, and I feel now more than ever that all others can see it, too. We are truly ESSENTIAL! We are a lifeline for our residents right now. We have stepped into roles that we never thought we’d have to–but we stepped forward into them without a second thought. For now we must continue to step forward, together, through this and to the other side, to our “new normal.”

I hope, as you reflect on what contributors have shared, you consider how you might make a difference in this challenging situation. Residents and staff can benefit from your engagement. Let’s be a mutual aid group of recreation and human service professionals dedicated to finding out how best to give and get support in coping with Covid 19. The virus may keep us apart but we can communicate and work together to keep any of us from being alone.

Teresa Rash, CTRS and her creative staff at the Margaret E. Moul Home shared this wonderful example of adapting to the Covid challenge:
Our Residents loved attending the York Fair every year. Since that was not possible this year we decided to bring some of the fair to our residents with a food truck event. We also had an afternoon of carnival games. The event was enjoyed by residents and staff.
Photo credit: Donna Keller

Essential Services: Activities and Recreational Therapy Professionals Making A Difference!

Compiled by Jeff Witman, CTRS, FDRT, Professor Emeritus, Applied Behavioral Sciences, York College of PA

On March 11, 2020 I had the privilege of speaking to the Lancaster Activity Directors Association’s monthly meeting at Brethren Village. We greeted each other with handshakes and hugs, enjoyed a buffet lunch sitting 8 to a table, sang a song and practiced Tai chi as a group. Within a week these activities and many others were no longer happening in attendees’ work places.

Covid 19 continues to have a profound effect on nursing homes and other healthcare facilities in Pennsylvania. In this edition of Dig It and the next (coming on October 5) four front-liners share their perspectives on responding to the virus.

Mary Schreiber, CTRS, Therapeutic Recreation Manager, Luthercare

As a Recreation Therapist in a long-term care facility that was sadly and significantly impacted by Covid-19, my world has been forever changed and is still changing. My role is now considerably different than it ever was and is now twofold: providing meaningful and purposeful activities to fight boredom and isolation, and keeping residents connected to people important in their lives. Thanks to a very dedicated Therapeutic Recreation team, we’ve been able to offer traveling activities to provide physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual opportunities. Video chats and window visits between residents and family members have become creative opportunities to engage as visitors sing, pray, and laugh together. Most important of all, we have ongoing open dialogue with our residents about the changes that are happening around them. As we move toward recovery and healing, there have been some bright spots along the way. We have seen resilience on display from our residents, a generation who already survived numerous hardships in their lifetime. As they cope with the feelings and emotions that come with restrictions on visitors and gatherings, they are again rising, this time with determination that COVID-19 will not define them.

Mary Ligon, PhD, CTRS, Associate Professor of Gerontology, York College and York Hospital

What: I was serving as a chaplain in a Medical-Surgical Hospital when COVID-19 occurred. In a hospital setting, chaplains meet the emotional and spiritual needs of patients, families, and staff. COVID-19 had a huge impact on the work of chaplains. Whereas before we went to patients’ rooms to meet with them, now we were restricted to calling patients on the phone unless it was an end of life situation. This lack of personal contact was very hard on many patients. During one phone conversation, a patient said to me, “If I could choose a diamond ring or a hug, I’d take a hug right now. But I can’t have either.” For a period of time, no visitors were permitted into the hospital at all, except in the occurrence of end of life. This was an extreme hardship for patients and families alike. As we called patients on the phone, one of the most common concerns they expressed was their feelings of loneliness and isolation because they could not be with their loved ones while going through their hospitalization. Phone calls, FaceTime and Skype helped alleviate the loneliness to a degree but they did not replace the need for human contact. The stress felt by patients and families was passed along the staff which impacted them tremendously. This stress was on top of the stress staff were already feeling because of fears for their own well-being or fears of bringing something home to their families. Caring for the emotional and spiritual needs of the staff became a top priority for chaplains. As an example, I was invited by a Unit Manager to come at the shift change and pray for and bless the nursing staff on a medical unit one day. She explained how overwhelmed people were feeling. They seemed to truly appreciate this blessing. Additionally, the Spiritual Care Department began offering weekly prayer times via zoom for the staff so they could express their concerns, needs, and joys there. Eventually, the chaplains were permitted to return to visiting patients in-person. But now we do so with masks on and carefully using our PPE (personal protection equipment). It’s a relief yet also brings new challenges and anxieties.

So What: In a hospital setting, people face crisis situations daily which brings out the need for emotional and spiritual support. COVID-19 heightened those anxieties. The most apparent lesson I learned from going through the time of COVID-19 in a hospital setting is that people need people and this need is never stronger than when faced with a crisis on top of a crisis. Modern technology is wonderful. Thank goodness for the old-school hospital phones that allowed us to converse with patients. Thank goodness for Video Chats that allowed patients to ‘see’ their loved ones. At the same time, I think we all became aware of how much we need in-person contact and human touch.

Now What: They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Perhaps we’re a bit more resilient having faced the hardships that have come with COVID-19. Perhaps we appreciate technology in a new way. Most of all, I hope we appreciate the people in our lives and value being with them in good times and bad. COVID-19 brought many hardships and tragedies. I hope we can hold on to the valuable lessons that came with it.

Mary Schreiber
Mary Ligon
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