A desire to help individuals be the best versions of themselves is what motivated Vanessa Perry’s career path in recreation therapy. 

“What I love most about recreation therapy is that the interventions used are measurable,” Perry said. “So you can actually see the progress of a patient and everything that they’re striving for and you can measure their goals. It’s really nice to be able to help patients reach their personal goals.” 

Vanessa has gained a variety of experience through the recreation therapy program, including volunteering with an equine therapy group

Perry is currently a senior majoring in recreation administration, with an option in recreation therapy. About 20 students graduate from the recreation therapy program annually. The smaller class sizes offer a more intimate learning experience, and allows more one-on-one interaction with faculty. Like many others in the field, it’s a career path Perry discovered along the way from a friend who also went through the program.

“This program really aligned with me as a person and everything I was looking for career wise,” Perry said. “So I did a little investigation, and just fell in love with the whole recreation therapy curriculum and the program Fresno State offered. So I thought, ‘you know what, I’m going to go for it’ – and I applied and got in.” 

The field of recreation therapy utilizes recreation and other activity-based interventions to address the needs of individuals with illnesses and/or disabling conditions. Interventions can include sports, art, music, dance and movement or gardening, for example. 

Perry is in her final semester and is working towards completing a required 600-hour internship, which readily prepares students for careers in the field. Her enthusiasm is apparent as she talks about her internship site, Exodus Recovery, a mental health facility in southeast Fresno. Here, Perry is able to put what she’s learned into practice, as well as shadow and learn from certified recreation therapists. 

Her experience there has sparked an interest to one day work in the mental health field. 

Vanessa facilitates art projects as a form of therapy for patients at Exodus Recovery

“I’m able to come alongside patients and help them with coping skills and help them deal with whatever they are going through at the moment,” Perry said. “That’s what I’ve really enjoyed so far. I can make a connection with a patient who is having a hard time with their thoughts. Through activities and interventions, I’m able to help them look at life more positively and refocus their thoughts elsewhere. Seeing their progress and the way they adapt to each situation is so great.”

According to Dr. Nancy Nisbett, option coordinator and professor of recreation therapy, alumni of the program go on to serve all over the U.S. in government and state agencies, such as Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Department of State Hospitals, behavioral health hospitals, physical rehabilitation hospitals, adapted sports, city/county recreation departments, and the department of Veteran’s Affairs, among others.

Nisbett says Perry is on her way to do great things in the growing field. 

What I appreciate most about Vanessa has been her understanding of the need to, and willingness to get as much experience as she could, even during COVID, when placements for pre-internship hours have been challenging,” Nisbett said. “Vanessa made the effort to seek out a variety of opportunities and volunteer, getting a broad range of experience including volunteering with an equine therapy program and in a behavioral health hospital.” 

After graduating in May, Perry will begin studying for the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification – the next step on her career journey.

Vanessa (r) returned to college at 34 and cites her family as her biggest motivation

A helping hand comes full circle 

The person committed to helping others, just received some timely help herself. Last semester, Perry received the Gwen Pendleton Hansen Bulldog Scholarship in Therapeutic Recreation. For the single mom of Alanna, 16, and Ace, 13, the scholarship was a welcome surprise. 

“It is so humbling to be recognized in this way,” Perry said. “As a full-time student and parent, one of my biggest concerns when pursuing my bachelor’s degree was how much it was going to cost. I applied for financial aid and student loans to pay for my books, so this scholarship will really help to relieve a good portion of that debt. It’s truly such an honor to be chosen for this amazing scholarship.” 

Gwen Pendleton Hansen / Photo courtesy of Hansen family

The scholarships’ namesake, Gwen Pendleton Hansen, built a legacy of her own at Fresno State, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in physical education and master’s degree in education, with an emphasis in counseling and guidance. She later taught in the Department of Recreation Administration for nearly 19 years (from 1973 – 1992), particularly courses related to recreation therapy. These courses included leadership training, programming for youth and adults and camp management for special populations, among many others. 

Four years ago, Hiram and Janet Hironaka of Southern California, created the scholarship as a way to honor the longtime educator for her impactful contributions to the Department of Recreation Administration. Their daughter, Dr. Jody Hironaka-Juteau, was once a student of Hansen’s and now also teaches in the recreation therapy program at Fresno State. 

The Hironakas with past scholarship recipient, Lucia Montiano.

Hansen passed away on February 2, 2022, but her life of service continues through the scholarship. The Hironakas said creating the scholarship was an expression of their gratitude and deep desire for her spirit to live on within the program.

“It shows me that even in the afterlife, the impact you have on students and the profession continues through scholarships like this,” Perry said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

National Recreation Therapy Month is celebrated annually in February. Learn more about Fresno State’s Recreation Therapy program on their website. For more information on scholarships within the College of Health and Human Services, visit chhs.fresnostate.edu/students/scholarships.