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Retired teacher embarks on a new career and her Western degree again helps to pave the way
Thora Perkins '76

Thora Perkins credits her successful first career as a teacher and reading consultant for Brookfield Public Schools in significant part to the master’s degree in education she received in 1976 at Western — but she didn’t know when she retired from the Brookfield district in 2008 that her degree also would help her to reenter the workforce in the health care field.

“One year after I retired, my husband was downsized in his field,” recalled Perkins, who was appointed in July as the new director of therapeutic recreation at Laurel Ridge Health Care Center, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility in Ridgefield. “Both my husband Tom and I had to reinvent ourselves in this economy and get full-time positions. This took effort, confidence, mutual support and perseverance — but fortunately, we were both successful.”

What Perkins discovered as she refocused her job search to seek a new position in health care was that her master’s from Western, along with a second master’s in community counseling from Fairfield University, had left her well prepared to apply for Connecticut certification as a therapeutic recreation director (TRD). State certification is required to qualify for employment in a skilled nursing facility as a TRD who holds primary responsibility for planning and implementing recreation programs and experiences for residents. Based on the academic credits she had already earned during studies for her two master’s degrees, the Connecticut State Department of Health advised her that she needed to take just two additional courses to fulfill TRD certification requirements. Her completion of those courses at Norwalk Community College paved the way for her to establish her new health care career.

Perkins, a resident of New Fairfield, previously served on the staff of Athena Health Care Systems’ Northbridge Health Care Center in Bridgeport before assuming her new position at Athena’s Laurel Ridge Center in Ridgefield.

“My job at Laurel Ridge is to plan and carry out the best recreation program possible for our residents,” she observed. “We are well staffed with four therapeutic recreation directors in our building, which enables us to provide a quality program that provides social, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual experiences for residents. Our goal is to assure that each resident maintains or achieves optimum health.”

One of Perkins’ important tasks is to work collaboratively with the nursing department to address the special recreational needs of residents who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. “This is a wonderful program for our residents,” she remarked, “and I work hard for the TRD’s continually to update their knowledge about planning recreation for these residents.”

An example of the therapeutic recreation program’s contributions to residents’ well-being is the popular annual dog show organized by her staff in September, part of Laurel Ridge’s continuing efforts to provide pet therapy as an integral part of its wellness promotion.  Perkins brought her own Portuguese water dog “Glitter Billy” to work for the day to participate in the show.

“The more that I am immersed in this health care community, the more I love this work,” she said. “The administration, residents and staff at Laurel Ridge are welcoming , and it is a pleasure for me to work again with highly competent and dedicated professionals as I did for so many years in Brookfield.”

Her first career in the Brookfield school system was built on the foundations of her master’s studies at Western, which prepared her to gain state certification as a reading consultant qualified to manage reading programs at the district level. Following graduation, she served for 15 years as a reading consultant for Brookfield schools. “I was fortunate to work with a superintendent who was an expert in educational research,” she recalled, “and he valued the reading consultant program at Western. My state certification enabled me to work for Brookfield in leadership roles for many years.”

Just as her own life experience has taught her the value of remaining flexible in building a second career, Perkins advises current students at Western to broaden the scope of their employment opportunities by gaining wide-ranging academic preparation and practical experience.

“My advice to students in education is to get dual certifications to be more marketable,” she said. “And I know that the health care field is wide open for people with certifications.”

The same optimistic spirit that saw Perkins and her husband through a time of economic adversity inspires her to offer encouragement to present students who will embark soon on their own job searches. 

“I would advise students to develop well-rounded skills,” she added. “Develop your skills in math, in speaking and interviewing, in leadership, in technology, in music and art. For many fields, it is necessary to become a team builder, a collaborative leader, and a manager excellent at setting and accomplishing goals. And while you’re doing these things, remember to find time in between to smile and to dream.”

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