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Empowering Individuals Through Recreation Therapy

HMHI Expert Spotlight: Erica Yaeger

Erica Yaeger headshot

Erica Yaeger is a Challenge Course Facilitator and Recreation Therapist at the University of Utah's Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI). Personal experiences inspired her to pursue a career in therapeutic recreation. She graduated from the University of Utah in 2016 with a BS in Recreational Therapy and is now part of the expert team who facilitates the HMHI ROPES Challenge Course. Follow along as she walks us through her day, discusses what inspired her to follow this career path, and describes the most challenging and rewarding parts of being a recreation therapist.

What inspired you to become a Recreation Therapist?

As an adolescent, I attended a residential treatment center in Utah where I was introduced to recreation therapy and ropes courses. I became a recreational therapist because my own personal experience inspired me to give back the incredible gift I was given. These experiences changed my life, and I was passionate about sharing that with others.

Recreation therapy has such an immersive approach to therapy and it was something I hadn't experienced before. Having been in therapy most of my life, finding recreation therapy was what changed me. Instead of sitting down in a chair and talking to a therapist I was able to move through situations and process emotions as they were happening in the moment.

What is your area of specialization and why?

I am a recreational therapist and work primarily on the Huntsman Mental Health Institute Ropes Course. The ropes course at HMHI is a collection of various elements, constructed mainly of cable and wood. It was designed as a resource for groups, teams, programs and organizations to use to enhance group effort, communication, problem solving and cooperation. Engaging on the ropes course was empowering and taught me not only that I could do hard things but that I could overcome my self-doubt and fears, and I am so thankful that I can share this experience with others.

"Being able to observe how a group is working together, and how individuals are engaging with their peers, offers me the opportunity to empower their strengths and challenge them in safe and healthy ways."

Erica Yaeger

What does a typical day look like for you?

On the ropes course, we arrive an hour early to review the group's specific goals and design a session that best meets their needs. We typically spend anywhere from two to six hours facilitating initiative games, low course and high course elements for our clients. Afterwards we clean and do a team debrief to talk about highlights from the day and opportunities for quality improvement.

What are the most challenging aspects of your role?

I would say that planning groups from diverse populations can be challenging, but in a good way. Being able to get creative and change course mid-session to meet clients' needs is exciting and something that I've learned to do over time. Being able to observe how a group is working together, and how individuals are engaging with their peers, offers me the opportunity to empower their strengths and challenge them in safe and healthy ways.

For example, one of our low course initiatives called "Zig Zag" involves a team of individuals using planks of different lengths to travel to a variety of platforms in order to reach a destination we have set ahead of time. More often than not, groups will have a clear leader and those that are quiet and follow along. Being able to recognize these unspoken agreements and challenge the leader to refrain from making suggestions while empowering those that often do not speak up to take change can drastically shift group dynamics in a way that benefits the team as a whole.

What is the most interesting and/or rewarding part of your job?

The variety of people we interact with on the Ropes Course is incredible! Watching corporate groups break down walls together and get vulnerable about how they can challenge themselves both personally and professionally is incredible. I also love the sense of wonder that comes with facilitating a ropes course! Empowering kids to use their voices and for adults to play like kids again is such a joy!

What do you like to do when you are not at work?

I am an avid adventurer, which is an easy thing to be in Utah! I rock climb, backpack, snowboard and explore the outdoors with my two fur babies and my fiancé. My partner and I met climbing up Big Cottonwood canyon and this past summer we completed the Nummu Poyo (John Muir Trail) in 20 days! Here in Utah, we spend most of our time in the Uinta Mountains and in Moab, Utah.

How would you describe the culture of HMHI?

Working with the ROPES team is awesome and super collaborative as we work to deliver quality programming to our clients. Being able to debrief after every group allows for each of us to highlight our strengths and weakness so we can continue to grow together.