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A New Year to Consider Music Therapy

Sessions Offered at all Three Clinics

When Kodi Lee won America’s Got Talent this past summer as a singer and piano player, it was a victory that went beyond rewarding incredible talent and winning a million dollars and the life-changing opportunity of being show-cased in Las Vegas.  It was a triumph for everyone who ever doubted their abilities or gave up on themselves because no one would give them a chance. Even more, it proved that all of us — even a child that is blind and non-verbal on the autism spectrum (ASD) can excel with the right guidance and encouragement.

Lee’s win also showed the power of music and music therapy in particular, a modality that Great Strides Rehabilitation has been offering for several years now. Being a new year, it’s another tool parents and practitioners may want to start including as part of their child’s journey to independence.

What is Music Therapy?

Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.

According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), music therapy “is a well-established allied health profession that uses music therapeutically to address behavioral, social, psychological, communicative, physical, sensory-motor, and/or cognitive functioning. Because it is a powerful and non-threatening medium, unique outcomes are possible.

Research supports its effectiveness in overall physical rehabilitation, increasing people’s motivation to become engaged in their treatment, providing emotional support for clients and their families, and an outlet for expression of feelings.

As Lee demonstrated, and several talented Great Strides students have also shown, many youth with ASD have innate musical talents with music therapy opening this world for the student/patient.

How Does Music Therapy Differ from Entertaining?

A board-certified Music Therapist must complete an AMTA approved university program, complete 1200 hours in a clinical setting (minimum of 900 hours internship), and pass the board certification exam.  This includes demonstrating competency in playing guitar, piano, percussion, and singing.

Because music therapy is individualized and client-centered, during a session, the therapist and their musical abilities is not the focus; instead the focus is on each child’s goals through facilitating their musical and non-musical development. In turn, focusing on strengths addresses each individual’s areas of need.

New Music Therapist’s Journey Offers Many Benefits to Your Child’s Learning

Music Therapist Karen Howell’s Journey and Background

Great Strides Rehab is proud to welcome Music Therapist Karen Howell, MA, LPMT, MT-BC, to our staff of professionals, who joined our team last summer.  Actually, parents and students got to know Howell months earlier during her internship as a practicum student working with former Music Therapist Gretchen Mitchell. Now, as a recent employee, Howell sees children individually and within groups at all three clinic locations. Like some therapists who chose to help children with disabilities, her journey to music therapy began with a personal encounter that happened to occur as a high school student.

“When I was in high school, I had a friend with high-functioning autism. I noticed that she communicated with others most easily in a musical setting as she could rarely make eye contact or answer questions unless she was in band class,” explained Howell. “Though she was able to verbally communicate, she struggled with the social skills that are so necessary in high school. Wondering how could she be such a different person in the band room than other times at school is what peaked my interest in music therapy. I saw the joy in my friend’s eyes when she played the flute, and the comfort and peace she felt as she played. I not only wanted to learn more about autism, but also how music helps treat children at all stages of development.”

Howell explains that her educational journey may have been different from other music therapists as she fell in love with a college that had a strong music program but no music therapy department. As a result, she decided to first double major in music and psychology, graduating from Brevard College in North Carolina with a B.A. in Music and B.A. in Psychology, followed by a M.A. in Psychology from Stony Brook University on Long Island. Next, she earned a Music Therapy Equivalency degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Terre Haute, Indiana.

“These educational choices have made me the musically and psychologically knowledgeable therapist that I am today,” said Howell.

Howell incorporates eight different methods of therapy as well as her advanced psychology and musical training.


These eight main methods include: Nordoff-Robbins, Orff, Bonny Guided Imagery, Dalcroze, Kodaly, Community, Analytical and Neurologic Music Therapy.  Emotional, psychological, and physical needs may be met through each of the methods. Howell states she uses the methods of Nordoff-Robbins in each session and also includes components of each method. Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy features spontaneous improvisation that is inspired by each child. By using music to highlight the child’s responses in the moment, this approach is highly effective in gathering the attention and validating the responses of each child.

“Children are able to express themselves through songwriting, instrument playing, listening to, and singing familiar songs,” said Howell.


With communication being such an integral function that is impacted in autism, Music Therapy is beneficial in fostering non-verbal communication and expression that are accessible whether a child is able to verbalize or not. Music Therapy is also used to promote psychological coping skills. Other cognitive skills that transfer from Music Therapy sessions to the classroom environment include sequencing, decision-making, and problem-solving skills and can be used alongside OT and PT to improve target motor movements.

Offered Classes and Their Focus

Hand bell ensemble: (45 min.) (early elementary)

Group members will play an assortment of preferred songs by each selecting a hand bell of their choice. Color-coded teaching and conducting will be the avenue for growth and development of this ensemble. The motor skills targeted for this group are more based on fine-motor abilities. This ensemble will address goals of increased impulse control, hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, attention, sustained eye contact, following directions, turn taking, and sequencing skills.

Ukulele group: (1 hr.) (late elementary)

The ukulele has become a popular instrument of choice for musicians aged from early childhood to late adulthood! This portable instrument will be used in a group session to further develop fine motor skills and coordination. Listening to other group members will be a large focus of this group that is designed to introduce a collection of familiar songs on the ukulele. This ensemble will address goals of fine motor skills, attention, synchronization, and self-expression.

Songwriting Group: (1 hr.) (middle and high school level)

This group will focus on creativity and self-expression. The music therapist will begin the course with mad-lib style songwriting and progress to the point that each member will write and perform their own song, as well as contributing to group formulated songs. This ensemble will address goals of enhanced self-expression, self-esteem, coping skills, and complex thinking.

Psychological/emotional development group: (1 hr.)

Through use of various music therapy techniques and interventions, members will learn ways to cope with everyday problems. Communication will be a large emphasis of this group as members learn communication skills within group that will transfer to the outside setting. Examples of group interventions include: songwriting, lyric analysis, instrument-playing, and singing. Goals that will be addressed include socialization, communication, mood regulation, coping skill development, self-expression, conflict resolution, self-esteem improvement, stress management, and increased motivation.

Family support group: (1 hr.)

During these sessions, family members of those with ASD or any other developmental, psychiatric, or communication disorders will assemble to share experiences with each other about day-to-day challenges associated with living with loved ones with these disorders. Self-expression and group encouragement will be the primary focus of this ensemble. An assortment of different interventions will be used to encourage members to express themselves through music. Goals addressed include stress management, acceptance, validation, independence, conflict resolution, coping skills, group cohesion, and a provided sense of accomplishment and hope.

Locations Served with Music Therapist Karen

All Kids North and Orange Park
Fletchers Tender Care North and South
Great Strides Rehab: Orange Park
                               Mandarin and

Call the main number at (904) 866-3228 to set up an appointment at any location/ day/time depending on availability.

PT Spotlight: Beverly Reyes

Meet our newest Bilingual Physical Therapist Dr. Beverly Reyes.

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 • Primary GSR location/setting? Orange Park & PRN PPECs

What do you love most about being a PT? Love to see the kids to thrive and become independent and meet their goals.

•  What is your favorite or proudest moment as a PT? When the kids achieve their milestones (i.e. crawling, walking, riding a bike independently) .• What is your go-to therapeutic activity or resource? Music- dance to promote balance and coordination, balance beams and jumps.

What do you help children improve? We work on functional mobility like walking, stairs, getting in and out of chairs, safety on the playground, strengthening to improve balance, coordination to help them to interact with peers through play.

Anything you want to add or have ppl know about you? I am fully bilingual and love to be able to learn and share about different cultures including food! 

Jacksonville company giving out free Halloween buckets for autism awareness

Blue Halloween buckets are meant to alert candy givers that a child has autism. This Jacksonville company is giving them out for free. Author: First Coast News Staff Published: 11:03 AM EDT October 21, 2019 Updated: 11:25 AM EDT October 21, 2019

One Jacksonville company is giving away free blue Halloween buckets as part of a national movement advocating for inclusion.

The pumpkins are intended to be a subtle and dignified way to alert others that a child has autism.

Great Strides Rehabilitation Inc. will be giving out the blue pumpkins to children who are on the autism spectrum (or suffer from other developmental disabilities) starting on Monday.

RELATED: Facebook post encourages blue Halloween buckets to raise autism awareness

Families can pick up a free blue pumpkin at Great Strides Rehabilitation’s Mandarin and Doctor’s Lake offices by visiting the reception desk. You can call the office prior to coming to make sure they still have pumpkins available at 904-886-3228.

The company will also be hosting a “Practice Trick or Treat” this week designed to help children with Autism and other developmental disabilities gain exposure to activities that typically occur on Halloween.

Families of children with Autism and other developmental disabilities are welcome to attend the “Practice Trick or Treat” on Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at their Mandarin Location, 12276 San Jose Blvd. Suite 508.

Great Strides Rehabilitation Inc.

Great Strides Rehabilitation Inc.

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Great Strides Hosts Patient Appreciation Night at Sensory Towne

Created by the Mom of a Child with Disabilities and Long-Time GS Patient

There’s a new “hot spot” in town that brings together children of all abilities in their own special play gym. It’s the adaptable sensory gym, Sensory Towne, opened in July, which helps children with balance, social skills, body awareness and overall development of the senses.

The students and patients at Great Strides Rehab, along with all the children the therapists work with at various fragile care centers, were recently treated to a fun night there by Dr. Edenfield, Executive Director, to check it all out. More than 25 kids, from ages three to teenagers, and their parents participated in this “patient appreciation night” swinging, sliding, playing games on interactive floors and other adventures.

Such a place did not exist in Northeast Florida and beyond before Kimberly Belzer, a mom of a son with disabilities, became determined to create her decade-long dream of a place where all abilities, whether “typical” or “special needs,” could “fit-in” and play together.

Belzer, a single parent to a multi-handicapped son, now age 14, was born with the genetic disorder Hydrocephalus, is autistic, nonverbal and has survived 16 surgeries and cancer. Brandon, and kids like him, require a lot of sensory input — spinning, rocking, calming lights, vibration, squeezing, and touching — to function during the day. Since Brandon was four, his mom has searched for, and not been able to find, an inclusive play space for children of varying needs that Brandon could enjoy.

Determined to create such an inclusive play-space, Belzer has spent years researching the best sensory input activities and equipment. She also credits Dr. Edenfield’s advice and support in helping make Sensory Towne a reality.

Dr. Edenfield and his therapists have been working with Brandon since he was two months old.
This was even before Great Strides Rehab was created, when Dr. Edenfield was working as an occupational therapist at Wolfson’s Children’s Hospital. Great Strides therapists Hanna and John Kirkland have worked with Brandon for close to a decade on many everyday skills from something as simple as pointing to learning how to feed himself and walk up steps.

“Great Strides has helped so much with Brandon’s independence so that now he can dress himself, select his own games on the I-pad, open the fridge and drawers, and get in and out of the car without assistance,” said Belzer. “They are highly caring people who will do anything to help you with your child’s needs, such as when Hanna and her husband came to my home and re-engineered Brandon’s bidet so he could push the button without turning around. “

And now Sensory Towne helps children with special needs in their development while having fun with most activities at wheel-chair level. There’s a sensory house, rolling slide, foam pits, a tactile library, motion-sensored interactive game floor, a chill spa (calming room) with vibrating bubble tubes, fiber optics and ocean sounds, rock walls and swings that spin, let a child lay-down, or allow multiple children for social interaction. There’s also an adult size changing table in the bathroom for parents that have older special needs children, and a sensory store to purchase unique sensory items.

“Since opening, we have had children of all capabilities come to play and it has been a beautiful thing to see,” said Belzer. “Sensory Towne is about kids playing together and learning about one another in the same space.”

Classes are now being formed for kids dance and yoga, music and movement, and interactive story-time. Check out listed schedules by going to or see all the fun on Facebook. Sensory Towne is located in the Centurion Square Shopping Center on the corner of Baymeadows Road and Philllips Highway.

“If there is something you’d like for your child and we don’t have it, tell us about it and we will try to get it,” said Belzer.

Students Learn Life Skills at Spectrum Thrift Store

Emma picked up a ruffled pink blouse from the stack of clothes waiting to be put out for sale, placing it on a hanger. Next, she grabbed a T-shirt and hung that one up with the other blouse, carefully making sure it was placed on the rack with the girls’ shirts. Dr. Edenfield praised her as they continued to sort and hang clothes together.

Once-a-week, Dr. Jon takes Emma to Spectrum Thrift Store on State Road 13, a special thrift store that encourages teens and young adults on the Autism spectrum and with other developmental disabilities to volunteer and possibly be employed at the store. Opened in January 2018, such a store has been a dream for mom Alisa Tillman who both enjoys collecting items and refurbishing used furniture and has an Autistic son that she wants to teach business skills and ensure he has a future career. She is accomplishing both by creating Spectrum Thrift Store, and, in the process, has also helped close to a hundred other children so far from ages 16 to 23.

Dr. Jon brings Emma to increase her skills and provide social interaction, another way of encouraging her growth into more independence. And just like with Dr. Jon, many other kids with development disabilities, whether from another therapy center, The ARC Jacksonville, Reach Academy or UNF’s THRIVE program, come to the store with a job coach or occupational therapist for on-the-job training to qualify for a future job. These are not counting the students with the Bright Futures Scholarship Program that volunteer with a “buddy” to put in their required community service hours.

Although wanting to provide an opportunity for her son, Lucas, “in case no one else did for him,” Tillman has also done that for others like two Reach Academy students Ethan Anderson and Ian McFather who are employed part-time at the store. “It just inspires me that I got the job,” Ethan Anderson, 16, said. Of the 30 students from ARC that have volunteered, Tillman boasts that seven have gone on to get jobs in other businesses and five are now working at Spectrum.

What’s even more inspiring is that out of the four students from UNF’s THRIVE program that has come to Spectrum, one keeps their accounting books and does their payroll during the summer, (you can see Carter Talbert presenting Tillman with her check on their Facebook page), while student Matthew Campbell set-up and maintains Spectrum’s electronics.

You can check out the bargains while helping a worthy cause any day of the week with Spectrum open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. And say hello to Dr. Jon and Emma as they make a fun task of learning some important marketing skills.

The store is open every day during the following hours:
Monday through Friday: 10 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Sunday: 11:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.