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Tapping Into an Untapped Therapy Community

Therapitas, the largest provider of bilingual services in Oklahoma, recently doubled its Shepherd Center location, and now completes nearly 2,000 play-based therapy visits every week – almost exclusively in its clients’ native language, Spanish.

Rock climbing. Ziplining. Trampoline jumping. Those activities might not typically register as therapy.

But on any given day at a Therapitas pediatric clinic, you’ll see children engaging in play of all kinds, with wide eyes and the sort of laughter you’d hear on a playground.

“We emphasize play-based therapy, so if you walk back into a therapy area, you’d probably think that it’s just a bunch of grownups playing with kids all day, and it often is, but it’s play with purpose,” said Kelly Hawkins, Therapitas Director of Clinic Operations.  “Children learn best through play, but there is always a goal we are trying to achieve, or a clinical observation being made.”

Therapitas, a rapidly growing group of pediatric therapy clinics serving the Latino communities in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, specializes in outpatient speech, as well as occupational and physical therapy aimed at treating the whole child.

They started out solely as a bilingual speech and language clinic, but the last five years have brought pivotal growth to the organization – with the addition of occupational and physical therapy services, as well as the opening of a Tulsa location. They are now the largest provider of bilingual therapy services in the state.

And they’re poised to grow some more.

In May, they held a soft opening for the expansion of their Oklahoma City Shepherd Center location – a move within the center from a 5,000-square-foot space to a 13,000-square-foot space. As if that jump was not significant alone, their south Oklahoma City location is currently in negotiation for acquiring a nearly 15,000-square-foot clinic. And that’s after upgrading to 7,000-square-feet just five years prior.

“It’s honestly very humbling and exciting,” Hawkins said. “We’re growing faster than we anticipated. We currently have 43 therapists on staff across our three Oklahoma clinics, and by the end of the summer we anticipate a staff of nearly 50 therapists.” 

Hawkins, who joined Therapitas in 2016, began her career with Therapitas as a co-clinical director and afternoon speech-language pathologist before moving into her current role. For her, it’s all about the mission – to create access for underserved communities and bridge the gap between providers and Spanish-speaking families.

“Our mission is to ensure that Latino children have access to the same therapy services as any other child,” Hawkins said. “Our families encounter a number of hurdles in their pursuit of services for their children. It’s about closing the gap for these families.”

A critical part of their mission is to help with those ‘hurdles:’ The clinic works to increase access by reducing or eliminating barriers in terms of language and clinic geographical placement. Families can speak directly to a majority of the therapy staff in Spanish, and all front desk personnel are native Spanish speakers. All Therapitas clinics are also strategically located in underserved areas in close proximity to public transportation. And for much of their client base, walking to appointments is possible. When transportation is especially difficult for their patients, they even offer ride services.

“We’re very intentional in where we put all of our clinics,” Hawkins said. “Where do our families live? Where are our services needed? We know there are barriers like transportation and fluctuating work schedules. One of the ways to remove those barriers is planting ourselves in the areas we’re needed.”

Across all three Oklahoma clinics, Therapitas averages around 1,800-2,000 therapy visits a week – and not a single person in need is turned away. Their influx is largely in part due to referrals and word of mouth. But those referrals often start with outreach.

“It’s grassroots sometimes,” she said. “Knocking on physician doors, going to schools to talk about bilingualism and the importance of serving. Our referral base continues to grow and we are serving more children now than we ever have. And I have to believe that is because our patients and referring providers have seen and felt the benefit of the services we provide.”

Within this period of tremendous growth, demand for more services still remains high. To broaden their impact, Therapitas is working to expand offerings to additional healthcare services, such as autism testing and diagnosis.

“We have families waiting 18 months to two years for autism testing, only to be called days before the appointment, to be told that due to Spanish being the primary language in the home, the child cannot be tested at that location, and they have nowhere else to go,” Hawkins said.

 Admittedly, Hawkins wasn’t connected to Latino community before her time at Therapitas. But the day-to-day connection to the families they serve has created a tenable commitment.

“It is in my DNA now,” she said. “I will speak up. I will be a voice. It’s because of these families.”

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