Gift establishes annual colloquium, recognizes contributions to OT profession

Al Garcia and Sandra Edwards
Al Garcia and Sandra Edwards

Al Garcia wanted to give his wife, Sandra Edwards, a gift that was truly unique.

“I’ve seen husbands give their spouses diamonds or jewelry, but I wanted to do something that has different value and will be here long after we’re gone,” Garcia said.

With his donation to the University of Florida to establish the Sandra Edwards Colloquium in the department of occupational therapy, Garcia honors her decades-long career in occupational therapy practice, education and research while providing an important resource for UF faculty, students and alumni.

“My husband has always really respected occupational therapy and my professional career,” said Edwards, M.A., O.T.R., FAOTA, a UF OT alumna and an occupational therapy professor emerita at Western Michigan University. “We believe this investment is something that can live on and help a lot of other people in ways we can’t even understand. It’s much bigger than us.”

The annual Sandra Edwards Colloquium will bring a leading expert in occupational therapy or a related discipline to the UF campus for a guest lecture and meetings with faculty and students.

“We are thrilled to be able to offer an opportunity to enhance the professional development of faculty, students, alumni and clinicians,” said Joanne Foss, Ph.D., O.T.R./L., the interim chair in the UF department of occupational therapy and the director of the master’s in occupational therapy program. “This colloquium will enable us to explore issues that affect occupational therapy education, research and practice. We would like to invite speakers that promote innovation.”

As the first occupational therapy educational program in the Southeast when it opened in 1958, the UF program has a long history of innovation. Edwards, a Gainesville native and 1965 UF OT graduate, was drawn to the profession for its combination of science and creativity. As a student, she learned from strong female role models, including the department chair, Alice Jantzen, Ph.D., and received sophisticated instruction in anatomy, neurology, orthopedics and psychology.

“All of that training served me very well,” Edwards said. “It was an excellent foundation and I really was able to stay ahead of the pack as a result of it.”

Following graduation, Edwards took a position at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, which included one of the first home health care programs offered by a hospital in the United States. Edwards then received a grant to conduct a clinical graduate study at the prestigious Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center in Downey, Calif., with five clinician colleagues from the U.S., Japan and England. She later worked in pediatric occupational therapy at El Portal del Sol School for Cerebral Palsied and Orthopaedically Handicapped Children in San Mateo. While in California, Edwards took courses from some of the most influential pediatric disability and development experts of the time, including Betty Yerxa, Ed.D., O.T.R., Jean Ayres, Ph.D., O.T.R., and Berta and Karel Bobath, M.D. Edwards became certified in Ayres’ sensory integration theory and the Bobath concept of neurodevelopment and also earned a master’s degree in special education. With her education and clinical experience, Edwards was well positioned for her next professional move: serving on the occupational therapy faculty at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Edwards admits she faced some challenges in the transition to educator, including the fact that there weren’t many occupational therapy textbooks written by OTs available at that time. Fortunately, she had large notebooks of material from her own coursework to share with her students, and she recognized the importance of giving them hands-on learning opportunities.

“For my whole career I would bring children in to my classes, which is a risky way to teach because children can make you look like an outright idiot, quickly,” said Edwards, laughing.

In 2005 Edwards received the Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award from Western Michigan’s College of Health and Human Services.

An illustration by Edwards that will appear in the new edition of her book “Developmental & Functional Hand Grasps.”
An illustration by Edwards that will appear in the new edition of her book “Developmental & Functional Hand Grasps.”

The author of numerous articles published in peer-reviewed OT, medical and engineering journals, Edwards initially focused on Down syndrome in her research and she and a former graduate student wrote a chapter in the book “Hand Function and the Child” on the hands of children with Down syndrome. In 2002 she and two former occupational therapy students released the book “Developmental & Functional Hand Grasps,” published by SLACK Books. Leading up to publication, the team presented concepts from the book at the World Congress of Occupational Therapists in Sweden, one of many juried papers Edwards presented at national and international conferences in OT, medical, engineering and interdisciplinary fields.

Edwards was then approached by members of Western Michigan University’s department of computer and electrical engineering, Norali Pernalete, Ph.D., and Ramakrishna Gottipati, M.S., to collaborate on uses for a robotic arm joined to a computer in a haptic, or touch, interface. The team, which also included occupational therapy graduate students, designed software for working with children with various disabilities, including problems with visual learning, perception and handwriting. The team presented their findings at several rehabilitation conferences and published in a number of journals.

“We essentially put Western on the map for rehab engineering,” Edwards said.

This painting by Edwards appeared on the cover of the Open Journal of Occupational Therapy.
This painting by Edwards appeared on the cover of the Open Journal of Occupational Therapy.

Now in retirement, Edwards is able to pursue some of her other creative pursuits, including world travel, piano performance and visual arts. An oil painting by Edwards, based on her photograph of a magnolia flower taken at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, appeared on the cover of the Open Journal of Occupational Therapy in 2014. Edwards’ art also figures into the new edition of “Developmental & Functional Hand Grasps” that she and her co-authors are currently updating. The book will feature Edwards’ illustrations of the hand.

“As I was studying these hands grasps I wanted to understand them intricately, and drawing, for me, is a very powerful way to get behind and in between the understanding of the real guts and mortar of what I’m trying to research and what I’m trying to understand,” she said.

Edwards and Garcia, an MIT-trained chemical engineer who retired as director of the bioprocess research and development unit at Pfizer’s facility in Kalamazoo, have also been active in philanthropic efforts, contributing to arts and community groups in Kalamazoo, as well as the student scholarship established in Edwards’ name at Western Michigan by faculty, students and alumni. When Edwards and Garcia traveled to Gainesville last fall for Edwards’ induction into UF’s Grand Guard Society, the timing was right to make a donation to the department of occupational therapy.

“Our vision for the gift is that the colloquium speakers will help bring to the University of Florida the kind of diversity of ideas that can only add strength to any educational endeavor,” Garcia said.

The gift is a fitting way to recognize the university and profession that have meant so much in her life, Edwards said.

“Joy, love and compassion are so important and our profession has the opportunity to make that happen with people,” she said. “You work for that in your family, but to have that professionally, it’s extraordinary. I think occupational therapy is a wonderful profession, I really do.”