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Alumni Gus LaZear: A Career in Recreational Therapy

CSUN Alumni Gus Lazear stands before a hot air balloon

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Gus LaZear has worked in the field of Recreational Therapy for about 15 years and today is Lead Therapeutic Recreational Therapist at St. Joseph’s and Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix Arizona.  He graduated from CSUN in 1996 with his Bachelor of Science in Recreation and Tourism Management (then Leisure Studies and Recreation) with a specialization in Therapeutic Recreation. 

Gus looks back to his years at CSUN as giving him a strong foundation and direction into the field. “I started in the recreation program with an emphasis on outdoor recreation.” LaZear said, “I added Therapeutic Recreation to be more marketable in the workforce.” LaZear would discover his interest in the field would soon develop into enthusiasm.

In the College of Health and Human Development, community partnerships have been elemental to our academic programs for many years. In the case of Gus’ program, practicum hours were required for the completion of his degree. “In doing my research for locations to complete my hours I contacted Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation in Pomona,” LaZear said. “I met with Anne Johnson. She was a CSUN alum.  Also her father, Tal Morash, had been faculty in the Leisure Studies program at CSUN, though he retired before I came to campus so I didn’t have the benefit of studying with him.”

At Casa Colina, LaZear got extensive experience in both the rehabilitation setting and in the Outdoor Adventure Program. “This was in 1994,” he said, “As I was preparing for graduation I was also completing my internship at Casa Colina in both program settings. So finding this Outdoor Adventure Program for people with disabilities was a perfect fit for me.”

Following the completion of his internship, and after graduation from CSUN in 1996, LaZear was offered a part-time job with Casa Colina as a program specialist.  “I was the first person added to Anne’s staff in the Outdoor Adventure Program,” he said, “I felt very fortunate to have a great opportunity to be part of tremendous growth in the program!” Over the next year, the part-time position grew into a full time job. And as the team worked together over the next eleven years, LaZear was named Program Coordinator.

Recreation therapists may work with clients in traditional facilities such as elder care facilities, youth intervention facilities, such as prisons, addiction recovery centers and other areas of life where recreation is part of the therapeutic process or part of providing full quality of life services. And in some cases their clients are people with disabilities seeking adventures in which they can participate. Gus' work was to expand clients' horizons by making adventure accessible.

At Casa Colina, events ranged from sessions that would last a couple of hours to trips that might last up to 7 days.  Adaptive surfing, skiing/snowboarding, sailing, fishing, camping, dog sledding, rock climbing, SCUBA diving, horse-pack trips, kayaking, outrigger canoeing, wheelchair sports, cycling programs, conservation programs, and even the occasional adventure to Hawaii were all on the schedule. LaZear helped build the program by increasing challenges for the clients.  “On any one trip we could have participants with Spinal Cord Injury, brain injuries, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, developmental disabilities, or people who’d had strokes, and the list goes on. Anne and I, along with Jen Bartel-–who is also a CSUN alum, by the way--grew the program from 60 days of trips a year to over 180 days of trips per year.”

“I entered the workforce with confidence because of my education at CSUN along with my practicum hours and internship,” LaZear said.  “On the job training is essential for a career working with people.  Being at CSUN and having the opportunity to network with an alumnus who could introduce me to the profession was important to establishing my career.”

In 2008, LaZear seized an opportunity to work at the renowned Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix.  Now in a clinical setting, he continues to help patients discover improved quality of life through rehabilitative activity, and he brings his skills-set to a team focused on interdisciplinary goals.  “For patients in the neuro-rehabilitation program, naturally the length of admission varies but stays range from a couple of days to 8 weeks and then continuing therapy on an outpatient basis. In Phoenix we are fortunate to have the Sports and Fitness Center at the Disability Empowerment Center which is an all-accessible gym facility for community members to independently keep up their fitness programs.”

When asked about the triumphs that come with this kind of service to others, LaZear said these milestones present themselves to him in a variety of ways, “One way I see the triumph is when I am in the community and I run into a patient. I assist in coordinating a 5/10k as a benefit for Arizona Disabled Sports.  During this past January's event, I had the opportunity to see past patients not only complete the 10k run, walk or roll, but some won in their divisions. And it is always rewarding when past patients visit us to show us what kind of progress they’re making.  In fact, a past patient came back in today and he thanked us. He said it gave him the foundation he needed to reach his goals. This means everything.”

LaZear has decided to pursue his MBA in Health Administration to continue his career in healthcare.

- Jean O'Sullivan with Gus LaZear