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Walk with an Eagle

Posted 11:08 a.m. Friday, May 5, 2023

The Walk with an Eagle program at UW-La Crosse matches recreational therapy students with older adults, with the goal of sparking social connections through the simple act of walking and talking. Part of UWL's Community Engaged Learning program, the course is taught by Assistant Professor Jennifer Taylor.

Rec therapy program benefits students and adults 50-plus

UW-La Crosse recreational therapy students are gaining soft skills and practical abilities critical to successful careers in health care — one step at a time.

Assistant Professor Jennifer Taylor has partnered with AARP Wisconsin and UWL Community Engagement to launch the Walk with an Eagle program, the first of its kind in the state.

The program, in its first semester, matches recreational therapy students with older adults, with the goal of sparking social connections through the simple act of walking and talking.

“These students are training to become recreational therapy professionals, so it’s important that they’re able to build a rapport with the community, conduct assessments, and implement and evaluate programs,” Taylor explains. “The focus is less on seeing how much physical activity you can do and more on the social aspect, building that rapport.”

Once a week, the students and their partners embark on a 45-minute walk around campus.

The students track their partner’s steps, assess how long and how far they walk each session, and make adjustments to the route as needed.

But Taylor has been careful to ensure that none of these more clinical tasks detracts from the greater purpose of creating social connections. Students who can build meaningful relationships with clients, particularly older adults, will have a leg up when they enter the field, she says.

Each week, students and their partners embark on a 45-minute walk around campus. Students say they enjoy the chance to connect with older adults, as well as the chance to develop practical skills in recreational therapy.

“I’ve heard from some of our walkers that this is the only time each week that they really interact with college students,” Taylor says. “We want to make that time as special as possible. So it’s amazing to see those interactions with students, all the stories they share with each other.”

Carter Baures, a junior majoring in recreational therapy, is no stranger to working with older adults. He began working at an assisted living facility in high school and quickly discovered it was his calling.

“Nothing I’ve found has made me feel as passionate as I feel about long-term care and working with older adults,” says Baures, noting how much he has enjoyed the Walk with an Eagle program. As participation in the program has increased, he’s taken on two additional walking partners.

“I’ve really enjoyed the hands-on-learning, the clinical experience and working on my communication skills,” he says. “You talk with someone, and you see them smile, and it stays in your mind forever.”

Paige Coleman, a senior recreational therapy major, has had a similarly enriching experience.

“I previously thought I wanted to work with children with special needs, but this class has made me want to work with older adults, too,” she says. “My partner and I talk about things going on in our lives, things going on in the community, what we did over the weekend. It’s really nice to make that personal connection while helping them reach their goals and live a healthier life.”

While Taylor jokes that winter in Wisconsin may not sound like the best time and place to start a walking program, attendance has been consistently strong. The number of participants from AARP has grown from 10 to as many as 24, with many participants rarely missing a session.

Jennifer Taylor, assistant professor of recreation management and therapeutic recreation

And although there’s no escaping Mother Nature entirely, the class has been able to mitigate its effects by utilizing campus buildings in their walking routes – which has an added benefit.

“It’s nice to see all of the new buildings around campus,” says walker Bev, who earned a business degree from UWL in the mid-1990s. “It’s fun walking and fun to learn about the students — where they come from, what they’re interested in and what they plan to do.”

Liz, another walker, adds: “The fact that it’s on campus and allows us to connect with students was (a draw for me). And it’s exciting to be part of a pilot program.”

Darrin Wasniewski, associate state director of community outreach for AARP Wisconsin, says programs that support intergenerational connections are sorely needed.

“Society has a way of segregating people based on age,” he says. “For us, this is the first program in the state like this, and it’s been great to see it come to fruition.”

While there are a few more walks scheduled this spring, Wasniewski and Taylor are already discussing the possibility of bringing it back in the future.

“I think we all realize it’s too important of a program to let it go away,” he says.

About the program 

UWL’s Community Engaged Learning program matches local businesses and organizations with faculty experts seeking real-world experiences and skill applications for their students.  

Organizations can submit project ideas through the UWL Community Idea Exchange. 

Faculty can apply to have their course designated for Community Engaged Learning. 


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