Leslie Hillis - A Lifelong Passion for Therapy with Kids
August 10, 2018
August 10, 2018
Why do we do what we do? For Leslie Hillis, a pediatric physical therapist and clinic manager for the Hopebridge Kokomo center in Indiana, there is one girl who embodies the reasons.
At 18 months old, this kiddo came to Hopebridge for physical therapy, as well as speech and occupational therapy. While she didn’t yet have an official autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis, she had some significant developmental delays.
“She was somewhat trapped within herself; unable to walk, crawl, play or effectively communicate,” said Leslie. “This was one the biggest challenges of my career. How was I going to teach her to stand and walk when she wasn’t even interested in toys?”
The team remained dedicated to working with her and Leslie noticed this little girl loved music. She would sing, ‘You are my Sunshine’ and ‘Wheels on the Bus’ to her as a reinforcer. While holding her up into a standing position, any time she would sit, Leslie would stop singing in an effort to keep her going. The girl eventually grew stronger and was motivated to perform other behaviors and movements as well. In some incredibly heart-warming moments, the girl started clapping while Leslie sang!
This kiddo has since received an ASD diagnosis, plus another extremely rare genetic diagnosis, but now, at 7 years old, she runs, walks, rides tricycles and can get up and down from the floor on her own. While she no longer attends Hopebridge for therapy, the relationship is still strong and she played t-ball with the Hopebridge Children’s Foundation league last month. Plus, she has a lasting impact on Leslie, of course!
While this child -and all the kids she works with – was a reminder of why she chose this path, Leslie has known since middle school that this was the life for her. Her aunt is a physical therapist and she grew up visiting her clinic, always believing it was a cool profession, although she never needed therapy herself.
She set her mind to it, majored in biology (with no intention of using her degree for anything other than to lead her to pediatric physical therapy) and minored in psychology at Ball State. From there, she went onto physical therapy school at the University of Indianapolis. She knew her end goal and didn’t have a backup plan, and as she can now humbly say, ‘thank God I didn’t need it!’
As part of PT schooling, she participated in internships. There were very few opportunities to work with pediatrics in the area and others in her class were after the same roles, but she held out. She ended up doing her final internship with a pediatric therapy clinic in Lafayette. It was a great experience, but her desire was to be back in Kokomo where she was born and raised.
While researching her options, Leslie discovered Hopebridge. She checked into it to see what it was all about and met with Hopebridge founder, Kim Strunk, and the on-staff PT, who she knew from her previous physical therapy rotation. They hit it off, but since they didn’t quite have the caseload for her at the time, she split her hours between the Kokomo and Marion centers, working with learners in both areas and supervising the physical therapy assistants. Shortly after, the other physical therapist decided to move onto another career path, so Leslie started running the department. As a recent graduate, she was not sure she was ready, but the team put its trust in her and she ran with it. Seven years later, and she’s still with us – now head of the entire Kokomo center!
“As a whole, there are so many rewarding elements of Hopebridge. As an employee, I wanted to work for a company where I was an individual; where I mattered. I didn’t want to be a number. Hopebridge offered that then and still has the family feel now, even as we’ve grown to nearly 30 centers.
“We know each other and we know what we value. As far as the clinical experience, there’s nothing better than working with therapists in other disciplines who can teach me and help me incorporate what I need to know,” said Leslie.
Leslie’s physical therapy background gives her the great experience to provide Hopebridge kiddos the best possible care, but she also lives and works with another unique perspective. As a mother of three children, her youngest survived a stroke last year. She now looks through multiple lenses – as a clinician and a parent – and truly understands what others are going through on a daily basis.
“My son attends Hopebridge for therapy. I drive him to Greenwood for PT and he gets speech and OT here in Kokomo,” said Leslie. “I know first-hand that our team is the best, so it was never a question whether he would receive care from them.”
Leslie is in this world to help kids – both her own and others – but they’re teaching her at the same time. From them, she’s learned to seize every moment and enjoy it. There is such innocence in them, that it sometimes makes the team want to laugh and cry at the same time.
“Sadly, a lot of caps are placed on these children ‘you’ll never do this,’ or ‘you’ll never be that.’ But guess what? These are just kids and they don’t understand the boundaries set for them, so instead, they go on and do some pretty incredible things,” said Leslie.
To her, autism is like any other diagnosis: it’s just a name. Each child is so different and the presentation is never the same. They are all individuals, regardless of whether they have ASD, and she intends for them to be treated as such.
Does this sound like your calling, just like Leslie’s? We’re growing across multiple states and looking for even more passionate therapists who desire a career that will enable them to change lives. Visit our job board to learn more about the open Hopebridge roles available to you.
If she could have any super power, it would be: “To be able to move at warp speed since I always feel I need to be everywhere. I’d want to be like Flash so I could even move through walls.”
Favorite book: “The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. I read it whenever I need extra tears.”
Favorite food: “Anything Mexican. My husband’s grandmother’s tamales are the best”
Fun fact: “My great grandma was a Cherokee princess.”
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