Dr. Thom Skalko
(Photo by Jay Clark)
By Kathy Muse
For ECU News Services
East Carolina University professor Dr. Thom Skalko is extending the university mission of service to South Africa, where he’s collaborating on a project that will create new jobs and enhance quality of life in the community.
Skalko, a professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, is working with educators at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa to establish the country’s first degree in recreational therapy. The degree will train students to use recreational activities to rehabilitate and restore function for individuals who have a disability, are recovering from a serious illness or accident, or are struggling with mental health issues. Impairments addressed may be physical, emotional, social or cognitive.
Skalko visited UKZN for two weeks in May, providing lectures on therapeutic recreation and its application in health sciences. He will return to South Africa in September to present at the Leisure and Recreation Association of South Africa conference.
Establishing the degree program requires course development, discussions regarding existing degree programs at UKZN and with governmental agencies that regulate health care services. As the curriculum is developed, Skalko will work with UKZN faculty in related disciplines including biokenetics, exercise physiology, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and leisure. Skalko anticipates that UKZN will need to eventually hire a credentialed recreational therapy faculty member.
Skalko said he expects the degree to be offered through a combination of distance education and face-to-face course offerings, with many of the support courses required for recreational therapy certification and accreditation available at the UKZN campus.
While the new academic program will benefit UKZN and provide new career opportunities for the students there, the skilled therapists who come out of the program will benefit residents in surrounding communities. “The need is great for all levels of rehabilitation services for individuals with disabling conditions,” said Skalko.
ECU professor Dr. Thom Skalko, standing, lectures on recreational therapy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. (Contributed photo)
“Providing qualified recreational therapists as an aspect of allied health will offer additional options for the country.”
The goal of recreational therapy is to facilitate full and optimal involvement in the life of the community, Skalko said. “Offering quality rehabilitation services in state-operated hospitals, particularly in mental/behavioral sciences and in agencies that serve older adults both in the community and in long-term care facilities will improve the overall quality of life for the citizens of South Africa,” he added.
Maliga Naidoo, lecturer in the UKZN School of Health Sciences, was instrumental in setting up the collaboration and arranging funding for Skalko’s travels, with the support of the Health Sciences dean Dr. Sabiha Essack. The university recognized Skalko’s efforts by appointing him as an honorary professor.
The ECU-UKZN collaboration came about through Skalko’s service as chair of the Committee on Accreditation of Recreational Therapy Education, which is part of the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. In that role, he heard about inquiries from universities in South Africa about adding the recreational therapy curriculum. He responded with support and information. From that interchange, he was invited to keynote the first Leisure and Recreation Association of South Africa conference in March, 2012. His presentation sparked interest and UKZN officials chose to move forward with the degree program.
Colleagues at ECU support Skalko’s efforts as well, according to Deb Jordan, chair of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies. “Dr. Skalko, with his leadership role in the national accreditation processes for recreational therapy curricula, has years of experience in academics as well as working with practitioners,” she said. “This combination of academics and practice help to make him well qualified to introduce such academic programs across the U.S. and in other countries.”
“I have no doubt that by introducing recreational therapy to South Africa, Dr. Skalko is helping to improve the lives of many,” Jordan said.
Glen Gilbert, dean of the College of Health and Human Performance, where Recreation and Leisure Studies is housed, said that Skalko’s efforts are a good example of the university’s mission, “Servire” (to serve).
“Collaboration between ECU and the University of KwaZulu-Natal demonstrates a fundamental commitment to the college’s mission,” Gilbert said.
“It also emphasizes the need for our students to become global in their thinking. This work by Dr. Skalko will be shared with our students in many ways and better prepare them for the future.”