The way Cortney Halsey tells it, the stars were aligned just right when groups were announced in her Occupational Patterns in Life and Culture course: in addition to three other classmates from the charter class of occupational therapy (OT) students, Halsey was paired with Taylor Delp for an assignment that asked students to use various forms of media to illustrate how a particular condition affects the way people engage in occupations.
“It was divine intervention,” said Halsey. “As soon as I found out that Taylor was in my group, it hit me like a ton of bricks.” Both students have an interest in children’s therapy, both of their mothers were elementary schoolteachers, and Delp is an accomplished illustrator. It was an easy choice for the group to make — one of the forms of media they would choose was a children’s book. What they didn’t expect was that the book they created would be passed on to a publisher and open up a new opportunity to reach patients.
The six-page children’s book My Smile features a character with Moebius Syndrome who lives her life with confidence despite a disorder that prevents her from smiling. It is based on a woman Halsey knows who was born with Moebius and now has a fulfilling life as a teacher and mother.
Those who have Moebius Syndrome often appear as if they have had a stroke, have difficulty talking, and sometimes have problems blinking or moving their eyes in a particular pattern, Halsey explained. “There’s a lot of stigma with the disorder because people think they’re unintelligent … they can’t smile. That’s the biggest indicator of this syndrome.”
The group hoped to convey that a smile is really in one’s actions. “It’s a spark,” Halsey said. “It is igniting love or passion in someone’s life — [similar to] occupational therapy.”
Assistant Professor of OT Lisa Burns said she was surprised by the depth of all the students’ investment in this assignment. “Taylor Delp and Cortney Halsey, with group mates Taylor Ladyman, Aileen Wolf, and Madalyn Schimpf did an outstanding job,” Burns said. In addition to the book, the group created a PowerPoint presentation, personal narratives, and videos to complete the assignment.
“The group brought out cultural implications, they talked about issues for caregivers, and they provided a variety of evidence-based resources,” Burns said. “The group was very well prepared. Like the healthcare team members they are becoming, they drew on each group member’s unique strengths and worked together to make sure the final outcome was exemplary.”
Delp said the group wanted to bring attention to the syndrome and show children that it’s possible to succeed through every stage of life. The main character starts off as an infant, and then is portrayed as a kindergartner having fun on a playground, a confident high school student raising her hand in class despite the pall of whispering classmates, a proud college graduate, and finally a mother.
“They provided a wealth of information about the condition,” Burns said. “But perhaps, more importantly, they emphasized how persons with this diagnosis are often misunderstood, even stigmatized. There is clearly a need for public education here.”
Delp used a photo of the woman who inspired the story to create the main character’s look. “It was challenging because you don’t want to overdo the disorder but at the same time you’re so used to drawing symmetrically,” she said.
While working on the project, the students saw a parallel to their future careers as therapists — reaching others and enjoying the work along the way. They also realized there is potential to write and illustrate more children’s books about other disorders. Delp’s mother has a friend who has connected the students with a publisher. “The dream,” the students say, is to expand upon My Smile to create a series of children’s books that help empower youngsters with various conditions. None of it would be possible without the support of the Murphy Deming faculty, they say.
“Dr. Burns and the rest of the faculty have illuminated how to take a challenge to the next step,” Halsey said. “And I think that’s what sets us apart as a school. Where else can you say I’ve been so supported, now I’m going to publish a children’s book?”