Working with children from SickKids to Kilimanjaro

Lyssa Keil smiles for the camera.
Photo courtesy of Lyssa Keil

When Lyssa Keil first stepped foot on University of Guelph-Humber campus as a high-schooler evaluating her post-secondary options, she felt right away that this was the right place, Early Childhood Studies was the right program, and that she wanted to become a teacher.

By the end of her first year, she still felt the school and program were a perfect fit, but her career ambitions had shifted considerably in a way she didn’t expect.

“A lot of us coming to this program wanted to be teachers, but it changed pretty quickly – I wanted to be a child-life specialist within the first year of being in the program,” she recalled. “It was actually the fact that we got to take science courses. It was the anatomy course specifically. I was really interested in it and I was actually really good at it.

“I thought, how cool would it be to combine the main aspects of an ECS degree with a science background? And I thought working at hospitals and working with children who are dealing with various medical issues would be a great combination of the two.”

Now, Keil is in her second and final year of pursuing her master’s degree in occupational therapy at Queen’s University. By her second year at the University of Guelph-Humber, she was already on her way along that path.

In addition to her coursework at UofGH, field placements and having the opportunity to shadow professionals on the job really had a profound influence on Keil.

Her placement at Silver Creek Pre-School was “the turning point.” It was her first time working with children with special needs, and her first time being introduced to occupational therapy.

“I had never worked with children with disabilities. It was really exciting to see a whole new dynamic of the early childhood spectrum. It also opened up job prospects to me. My degree wasn’t just about early childhood education. I was building a foundation for other professions as well.

“I’d never known what occupational therapy was before,” she added. “I got to observe and shadow the occupational therapist there, and that profession really sparked with me.”

Keil still liked the idea of becoming a child-life specialist, so now she felt a little torn. Her next placement, at the Hospital for Sick Children (or SickKids), helped to clarify her feelings.

She was working with the occupational therapist there when she met a struggling little girl in the ward.

“When I first met her, she had complete numbness on one side of her body. She couldn’t move it at all,” Keil recalled. “I watched the occupational therapist with her in play and with the therapy dogs that were there, and over the months I was there, I actually got to observe her regain complete functioning in that side of her body.

“I thought if I can do that – giving a little girl her life back – that’s amazing.”

Next for Keil is a trip to Tanzania to work with children at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre. After that, she’d like to continue travelling to areas where her skills might be most urgently needed. And she still loves working with children; she volunteers with Best Buddies International and Kingston Elite All-Star Cheerleading’s Special Needs Team.

“Children are a huge passion of mine; that’s why I went into ECS. I like to keep working with them because otherwise you miss their little faces,” she said. “The background from child development really fits well with occupational therapy. I was really surprised how well my undergrad prepared me for my master’s. We learned communication, engaging the children in a genuine manner, patience and being respectful. All those things go into developing a rapport with a client.

“I was really happy with my decision I made coming into Guelph-Humber. It was all those professionals I met along the way who guided me along the path I’m on now.”

Learn more about Early Childhood Studies at the University of Guelph-Humber.