Darla Gardner is an ASHA certified Speech Language Pathologist with extensive experience in both the skilled nursing and educational settings.
“Ms Gardenia” was created after an adorable and otherwise quirky second grader with autism lovingly referred to her by that name on a daily basis despite multiple attempts to correct. Although he is no longer on caseload, many more students like him remain and his nickname is used as a reminder that although therapy can be frustrating and challenging it is the most rewarding and life changing field to be a part of.
This site was created as a resource for parents, therapists and other professionals to share therapy ideas and activities, to encourage therapists and parents who feel overwhelmed and to promote products that improve communication across settings. If you would like to read more about my professional journey please keep reading.
The Story of a Journey, This is Mine
If you have gotten to this page then you would like to know even more about me. I am going to share my professional journey…which is long…with the hopes that I can encourage and inspire any current therapists or someone who is looking at the field of therapy as a potential career. Hopefully, if you stick with me through this LONG and wordy journey, you will agree with me that Speech Language Pathology is the most amazing and rewarding career to be in.
As a child, I admired my teachers and wanted to be just like them. I grew up in a private Christian school with no special education program on our campus. My mom, however, worked at a nursing home as an activity director. Here I was exposed to and became closely involved with not only the elderly population but also adults who had special needs or disabilities which prevented them from taking care of themselves. Every holiday or school break, as well as MANY weekends, were spent deeply involved in the day to day activities of the nursing home.
After suffering an injury that led to many months of rehabilitation in high school, I was introduced to the therapy side of the medical world. During my months out of school, I went to work with mom (in a wheelchair) and socialized with the residents a little more on their level. I immediately wanted to be a therapist and even had it outlined in my senior book of memories! As college began, I worked full time in the therapy department of the nursing home I was so familiar with the full intention of being a physical therapist. This position was excellent for me to see all disciplines of therapy as well as nursing.
I was married young but my husband was serious about education and about me being an individual, a professional and accomplishing my goals. I studied pre-requisites for both nursing and physical therapy because I wasn’t exactly sure which field I would settle on. I considered all three fields (PT, OT, ST), went to various orientations and open houses for different programs, searched the internet for information on programs of instruction as well as job opportunities that followed graduation, and asked for TONS of advice from the therapists that I worked alongside daily. Speech therapy seemed to be the most enticing to me. Maybe it was the limited lifting and physically difficult aspect of the job (which I was so wrong about!) or possibly the unwritten “dress code” and fashion sense of the SLPs (just being honest here) but most possibly my acceptance into the ‘fast track’ program for Communication Disorders at the University of Texas at Dallas that would enable me to be practicing within a couple of years in a county which had very few therapists to provide the needed services.
After graduating with my Bachelor of Science in Speech Language Pathology and Audiology in 2002, I continued my graduate courses and became licensed as a Speech Therapy Assistant to help provide therapy at the hospital where I was working as a tech. My supervising SLPs both worked in the school system. One pursued me heavily to work in the school district in which we now lived. So, at 3 months pregnant, I began my first day in public education EVER —remember no exposure to special ed or public school for that matter…private Christian school education— and began work as a Speech Therapist Assistant WHILE still completing my graduate courses for Communication Disorders.
I completed my Master of Science degree in Communication Disorders in December 2003. I continued my Clinical Fellowship Year at the school district with my amazing and now longtime friend and mentor as my supervisor. My caseload varied from elementary-aged students to high school students with a range of severity and impairment. The caseload was high and extremely fast-paced so I thought I might try something different when I was contacted by the company I had worked for as a teenager to work in their SNF just a few miles away. Little did I know that the ‘high caseload and fast-paced’ environment at the school was nothing in comparison to what I was moving into.
Skilled nursing was comfortable and cozy for me. I was happy and content with ‘my people’. This setting was incredibly rewarding and you get to spend so much time with your patients that you get to be an extended family to them. The therapy team works together whether you like each other or not. You become friends by proxy with people you would have never chosen at random and end up loving each other dearly in a short amount of time.
Once again I was pregnant when I started that job as well and I worked there a couple of years before the administration changed as did the relationships and the workload expectations. This you will always find in skilled nursing: burnout. I saw my mom go through it several times as an activity director in the same setting. When the school district had an opening again I decided to go back but continued to work PRN for this same company that had always been so good to me. They had supported and encouraged me as I grew into an adult and also into a therapist.
This time the school district decided to let me be the one therapist who was responsible for providing therapy in all of the district’s life skills classrooms. I still had my Junior High and High School articulation and language pull out kids and my favorite part of that caseload was “my boys” that had high functioning autism who met with me for social skills groups at lunch or in small group sessions. This was one of the more “fun” tenures of my school-based experience but it can be extremely frustrating trying to make recommendations and implement supports into a classroom when you are only there a few minutes a week. Something I have learned as I’ve practiced longer (looking back) is that I have no idea what their school day and responsibilities are like no more than they are aware of what my role is in that classroom. Time and staff education are both what you can use to your advantage. Developing a collaborative relationship with teachers by learning from them as you educate them is key in making any kind of true communicative influence in their classroom.
A few more years passed and a facility in an even smaller town in our county contacted me about working PRN over a summer break. As I was driving out to it, I passed a huge field of sunflowers and it enchanted my perspective from then on. The small facility had a perfectly manicured lawn, was beautifully decorated and the atmosphere was relaxed and quiet. Everyone there knew every staff member and resident personally. Several of the staff members had family there as well as teachers who had educated not only them but their parents as well. I took my Chihuahua every day and she became an instant celebrity. After working that summer I knew I wanted to be there full time as a therapist. This facility had struggled for YEARS to have a full-time SLP and the potential was amazing. It was about the time I agreed to be full time as a therapist that the Director of Therapy (who had been there for several years…another reason I decided to stay) informed me that she was leaving to go to the school system and had recommended ME for the full-time director position. WHAT?!? WAIT!!! This was not at ALL in my professional plan.
“For I know the plans I have for you” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”Holy Bible, New International Version, Jeremiah 29.11
The next few years were a learning experience that I would never trade. The team I was given of three grew to an entire department of 8 full-time employees and 15 including our PRN staff. We went from in house therapy to contract. The Medicare laws changed and productivity expectations changed with them. Staffing and scheduling issues became very real to me being in a rural community of a county that had few therapists to go around. During this time, I developed relationships with other rehab directors and home health providers that have proven to be invaluable even after leaving that setting. I learned about and became fluent in budgets, interviewing, contracts, billing, and even having to “manage” close friends which didn’t always mean making them happy. My personality is such that I became the filter for my team. I took much of the stress and backfire from other departments preventing it from filtering into them. I took pride in our department as I advocated for and defended them to the administration. My standards were high and they lived up to it.
Our team was amazing and we had the best reputation in the county. Our building was always full with a waiting list and we had happy, healthy patients. We did some amazing therapy that changed people’s lives or in some cases allowed them to be comfortable and happy during their final moments on this earth.
Unfortunately, administration and ownership changed and it changed the standards of the care provided. I stepped down from being the director and worked part-time in both that facility and the school district I had been with for so many years. I eventually left that building after a year of watching it change so far away from what it once was into something I no longer could be a part of. It was heartbreaking and I wonder if I should have stayed but at the time, I had to do what was best for me mentally, emotionally and physically as well as my family.
Being a wife and momma precedes any job that I have ever had and it always will. I make that very clear to every employer during the interview process. This is another thing I learned from my momma, the nursing home activity director extraordinaire! The best there ever was or will be.
A couple of years passed where I worked PRN in both settings. It was nice to make my schedule but not so nice to miss out on holidays and vacation time.
I went back to the school system full time in August of 2014 and was assigned to one of our district’s early childhood centers meaning PreK and Kinder only campus. This was something I had NEVER done in all of my years in education. At first, I was concerned that I would never be able to understand these little people who spoke in a more severely disordered version of the language I had been used to working on only /r/ and /s/ in! After a couple of weeks, I knew I was in the right place. I have developed some wonderful relationships with the other faculty members on this campus and feel like a valued member of their team. We have many ideas and have even implemented several new programs and interventions since I became full time again.
SNF speech is still a strong passion for me and I work for my original company at least three times a month during the school year and as often as I am needed during the summer or holiday breaks.
I can’t say I like one setting more than another. I love both populations equally and they have so much in common when it comes right down to it. With the high and sometimes unreasonable expectations in the skilled nursing and long-term care setting what they are right now, I think I am in a good place for long-term full-time employment. The school system is stable, growing, and rewarding in more areas than one.
Thank you for sticking with me on this long explanation of who I am and how I got here professionally. I hope you now have a glimpse of who I am personally as well. I think you might be willing to now agree with me that my chosen profession is the best one to be a part of! Any young lady I meet who is toying with the idea of being a teacher or nurse I HEAVILY encourage them to look into Speech Language Pathology…and a few have and are now working in our field!
For any further information about Speech Language Pathology please contact me. I would love to hear from you and help you on your path.