What makes Great Strides unique is providing an interdisciplinary team of specialists at one rehab and special education facility so parents can meet their child’s varied special needs in one location.
Great Strides is the culmination of more than 20 years with Edenfield being guided by “observing others being helped and finding new ways of helping people have a better life.”
Growing up in Gainesville, it all began while Edenfield was in high school where he had the opportunity to participate in an internship program focused on the different occupations that hospitals need. While he and other classmates visited the different departments of a local hospital, he was drawn to the rehab specialists who were helping children with developmental disabilities or chronic illnesses.
During this same time period, Edenfield also began volunteering during his summers at a special needs children’s camp. He also had great role models through his parents. His mom, Gail, was a school guidance counselor and dean of an elementary school in Ocala for many years, while his dad, Bill, a doctor himself, was head of psychological services for Marion County for 30 years and continues to practice today.
Through these experiences and his parent’s dedication to kids he realized that helping children overcome their challenges by gaining skills and boosting their self-esteem was his calling.
While studying occupational therapy (OT) toward earning his bachelor’s degrees at the University of Florida, he met his future wife and became a horse person, with one reinforcing the other. His wife, Adria, and her mom, Kathy Mattson, raised and trained Arabian horses in Ocala, and they made Edenfield into a horse person, too.
For years, Edenfield volunteered with UF’s hippotherapy, which helps patients with spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy, learn how to walk and other skills with the use of horses. Research has shown that because a horse’s movements mimic human movements, patients can be guided to accomplish various medical goals with horses, like increasing their range of motion or strengthening their core.
The main goal of an occupational therapist is to help a person be as functionally independent and have the best quality of life as possible. So, an occupational therapist’s assistance can be as diverse as the individual patient’s needs and interests. Since Edenfield also loves boating and water sports, when assigned to do a special project at UF for disabled athletes, he decided to develop equipment that would help arm amputees be able to water ski. A fellow UF student who lost his arm in a motorcycle accident had water skiing on his bucket list and became Edenfield’s guinea pig, testing-out his specially made harness. “The harness that attached to the handle would make up for their lack of strength and would release automatically if they were to fall,” explained Edenfield. The harness had a successful run and his friend could cross that experience off his bucket-list.
“We all run into bumps in the road throughout life and have to modify what’s needed to continue to live and enjoy life,” said Edenfield.
Edenfield couldn’t help but be influenced by the founder of the University of St. Augustine (USA) for Health Science, where he completed his master’s degree in OT. Stanley Paris is known for his incredible feats, such as swimming the English Channel multiple times and completing the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, and is recognized for making the public aware of the importance of rehab therapy.
Edenfield and his wife continued to volunteer with local hippo and therapeutic riding programs. The goal in therapeutic riding is the opposite of hippotherapy — to teach special needs children how to ride a horse — in hopes of bolstering their self-esteem. This type of riding therapy doesn’t require a medical professional and usually takes place at a private stable with a competent horse person leading the horse as the child rides along.
Edenfield was now helping children at Wolfson Children’s Hospital while Adria was working with all ages as a physician’s assistant at St. Vincent’s hospital. Seeing the big smiles of accomplishment on the kid’s faces and knowing that therapeutic riding was producing results, the Edenfield’s hoped to one day have their own program. When they moved to Jacksonville in 2000, they found a home with a large lot and got lucky when an elderly friend from Ocala gave them his deceased wife’s two horses because he knew they would be in good care. “Great Strides” was born and established in their backyard.
In case you haven’t guessed, the name “Great Strides” represents both the stride of the horse and the progress that the kids make working with the horses. As Edenfield continued to provide hands-on therapies with the children at Wolfson and his therapeutic riding program on the weekends, he saw that most disabled children require multiple types of therapies. That meant parents had to take their child to see the needed specialists at different locations which not only took up a lot of time but made cohesiveness in treatments difficult.
Edenfield now had a new dream to create a comprehensive rehabilitation center for children. He saved up enough money in four years time to rent a small space behind Sonny’s BBQ in Mandarin, very quickly got a full case load and began adding more services like behavior analysts and physical therapists. In two years he grew out of the three-room space and purchased a new 10,000-square-foot building across the street. That was 10 years ago.
Today Edenfield employs 65 specialists and assistants, has added a special needs preschool to the main clinic where children receive speech or behavior help after school, and contracts with other medically fragile day cares and schools providing specialists for their needs.
“Sitting in my office, I remember that when I first came up with my dream, my mom gave me a framed quote by Walt Disney that reads, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it,’ ” Edenfield said. “I constantly look at those words as a reminder to continue to dream and have new goals.”
The complete Disney quote is: “Always remember that this whole thing was started with a dream and a mouse.” Just as Edenfield’s center started with a dream and a horse.
Great Strides Rehab provides every possible comprehensive service a child may need from music to animal therapy. Their school provides intensive education needed by children with more complex challenges, such as autism.
“My biggest triumph is to take a family that has just found out that their child has been diagnosed with a disability, and give them a road map of help so they know that it is going to be OK,” said Edenfield. “Their life may be different than their original paradigm but they and their child are still going to have a good life.”
Today, Dr. John Edenfield OTD, OTR/L, continues to grow in his field having just completed a clinical doctorate in occupational therapy also from USA in Health Science. To complete his doctorate, he researched his capstone project for three years, titled “Pilot Study: The physiological effects of animal assisted therapy on children with autism spectrum disorder. His findings will be published in the Journal of Physical and Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics and will be presented at the national occupational therapy conference to take place in Chicago this spring.
“The evidence of the health benefits in the bonding between animals and people goes back hundreds of years so why incorporate this benefit while helping challenged children?” asked Edenfield. “My hope is that these studies will add to the body of evidence to support the use of animal assisted therapy for children with autism.”
When Adria hurt her back a few years ago, they had to stop their horse therapy program. Edenfield wanted to continue the benefits that animals have in helping challenged children so he went through the year-long process of acquiring and learning how to work with a service dog. His pilot study is based on working with Nantuckett. “We came to the conclusion that having children interact with the dog before their sessions, whether therapy or educational, meant they would be more alert and receptive to learning and communicate and behave better,” Edenfield said.
Edenfield and Great Strides continue to find better ways to help children have the best life with what they are given. He is a living example of Kurek Ashley words, “The quality of your life will be determined by the quality of your contribution. … When you work to improve the lives of others, your life improves automatically.”