Photo Credit: Tabitha Aragon's Facebook Page

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a troubled history littered with scandal, criticism, and lack of care; however, some veterans receiving recreational therapy may have a different story to share.

Those who are apart of the Outpatient Community Integration Program within the Miami VA Recreational Therapy (Rec Therapy) Department, are able to experience the healing benefits of rock climbing, kayaking, fishing, swimming with dolphins, and much more.

Although she is too humble to admit, the program is led by one of the TOP Recreational Therapists in the country, Tabitha Aragon.

While surrounded by the lush evergreen trees of Oleta State Park in Miami, Florida, Tabitha was able to sit down with the Combat Hippies for a moment and share some of her expertise.

Veterans and families gathered at Oleta State Park in Miami, FL. Photo Credit: Andrew Cuthbert

Veterans and families gathered at Oleta State Park in Miami, FL. Photo Credit: Andrew Cuthbert

“My program aims to help veterans integrate back into society after serving in the military, usually combat.  We strive to help them find passion and recreational interests again or just overall motivation in life.” said Aragon.

Problems affecting service members transitioning back into civilian life could include relating to others, reconnecting with family, and creating or joining a community (source). Tabitha, like many other Rec Therapist’s around the country, help ease this stress with fun, free activities that veterans can do with their families while being apart of a community.

Due to the differences in staff and geography, not all Recreational Therapy programs are the same. According to Tabitha, not  even the one in Miami was able to do so much many years ago.

Back then, veterans were limited to just a few programs such as horseback riding and kayaking on occasion. The focus was connecting veterans to resources until she took over and began creating more partnerships in the South Florida community. Since this area is surrounded by water and has pleasant weather through out the year, activities such as kayaking and swimming with dolphins are available.  Although the VA does not allow solicitation, she asserts that people were looking to partner with such programs and all she needed to do was talk to people.

There are some common misconceptions when it comes to Rec Therapy. According to Tabitha, most do not even realize that it is an actual therapy. Every person gets an  initial interview, sets up goals, and is assigned a treatment plan.

The majority of  veterans that go through her program are Iraq and or Afghanistan Combat Veterans and most are dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress. In her experience,

“Rec Therapy helps bring about a decrease in depression, anxiety, and other symptoms.”

She believes the key to Post-Traumatic Growth is being involved with a community and doing fun things that help you reconnect with family and friends. Usually, veterans tend to isolate and this program allows them to be with other veterans who have similar experiences.

One of the best things she implemented within her program is an email list. Once a veteran is prescribed Recreational Therapy by their Primary Care Provider, they are scheduled for an intake. After the initial interview has been conducted,  the veteran is then placed on an email list. As seen in the picture below, there are plenty of fun things to do in addition to resources.

Weekly Email List. Photo Credit: Andrew Cuthbert

Weekly Email List from Tabitha Aragon. Photo Credit: Andrew Cuthbert

She claims this is a great way to keep veterans involved. An added benefit is accountability because once a veteran commits, he or she rarely goes back on their word.

There is also a community outreach component to her work.  She partners with the Mission Continues Miami Platoon  to help get veterans more involved in the South Florida Community. Projects range from clearing out evasive plant species, to repainting schools in low-income Miami neighborhoods.

In closing, The VA Medical System does have programs that provide tremendous benefits to veterans. Tabitha has created a great system in Miami and set the example of how to run such a program. As said in 2011 article published by the Miami VA,

“There’s no magic pill with PTSD, but there are dolphins.”

Photo Credit: Hipolito Arriaga's Facebook Page

Veteran swimming with a dolphin at Island Dolphin Care. Photo Credit: Hipolito Arriaga’s Facebook Page

 

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