“The world needs more people like you.” It’s a phrase used when someone is doing good, when someone is uniquely qualified for a role or when someone is of incredible value. It’s a phrase that certainly applies to occupational therapists like Brian Keene, a recent graduate of NAU’s Occupational Therapy doctoral program at the Phoenix Bioscience Core. It’s also the reason NAU just expanded its OT program to include a hybrid cohort. The world needs more people like Keene.
Keene’s path to becoming an OT started when he was young. He spent his early years in foster care with his half-sister before being placed in a stable home around the age of four—the home of Vicki and Dennis. His foster parents ensured he felt safe, had food and all the other necessities to be a thriving kid. After fostering more than 70 children, Vicki and Dennis adopted Brian, his half-sister and three other girls. This became Keene’s family The values his adoptive mother instilled in him created a foundation for how he approached life and interacted with others.
After high school, Keene didn’t feel like college was for him. He believed college was for “smart people.” Not knowing what type of career would best fit his talents and interests, Keene joined the Army as a medical lab technician. In this role, he found himself both mentally and physically stimulated. During his five years of active-duty service, Keene worked at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, running blood tests for people receiving blood transfusions. Keene knew he wanted to continue a career in health care to help others but in a capacity that involved working directly with people. He went to college and considered both physical therapy and education, but neither felt just right. Then he stumbled across occupational therapy. Like many people, Keene said, “I didn’t even know it existed.”
OTs are health care professionals who work with people to help them find ways of participating in the activities that are most meaningful to their lives, such as bathing, driving, dressing, feeding and mobility. “As an occupational therapist, I have a career that brings out all my passions: working with youth, educating, advocating, empowering others and promoting mental and physical health. It’s perfect for me,” Keene said.
But it wasn’t easy. Keene said his time at the Phoenix Bioscience Core where NAU’s doctorate in occupational therapy is offered, was tough. He was challenged to find new ways of learning. “I learn by watching or doing. I’m not a fast reader, so it was impractical for me to read 50 pages in one sitting. Learning how to study and what worked for me was key. I found videos online and I used flashcard apps. I noticed classmates were studying in groups, making study guides, using each other as a resource and I started doing that,” Keene said.
After Keene graduated and passed his board exam, he began working as an OT with children in their homes. “Working with a child in their home has many benefits. There, you can see the kids in a natural setting where you can get a clearer picture of the child’s passions, strengths, interests and family cultures,” he said. “Unfortunately, often due to disparities and lack of resources, many kids who need services have been on waitlists for years because clinics are too far from children’s homes and there are not enough therapists. That’s precious time that we are missing because there simply aren’t enough of us.”
The waitlist can be even longer in places like South Phoenix, due to a critical shortage of OTs. Keene is working to change that. He recently contracted his company, Pure Hearts Therapy, with the Arizona Department of Developmental Disabilities to provide therapy services. Keene is looking to hire therapists who have a shared passion of working with kids and plans to open a therapy clinic for children in South Phoenix.
On top of this, Keene started a podcast because he was frustrated that he only got one hour a week to work with the kids on his caseload and he knows so much work happens at home with the parents. The podcast, “Autism Family Resource,” empowers families raising neurodiverse children and educates families about resources, services and tools that may be available to them. While it was originally intended as a resource for the families on his own caseload, it now has reach and impact far beyond his South Phoenix community.
For Keene, the journey to South Phoenix meandered from Glendale and Lake Havasu City, where he grew up, to Hawaii where he served in the army, to downtown Phoenix for school and now to South Phoenix. But it hasn’t just meandered, it’s come full circle. While in graduate school, an older biological sister, unknown to him and the sister he grew up with, reached out to him on social media and introduced herself. She said that she remembered him from when he was just two years old and knew that one day, she would find him again. She showed him screenshots of her wishing him a happy birthday every year on Facebook. She flew to Phoenix from Texas and reconnected him and his other sister with his biological mother, who lived just streets away from his South Phoenix home, along with aunts, uncles and cousins he had never met. Keene’s biological mother and adoptive mother met for the first time during his NAU graduation, and he recently learned he has three other brothers whom he hopes to meet someday. South Phoenix has become much more than a place to live and work; it’s become home.
As for the need for occupational therapists in South Phoenix and other underserved communities, Keene will keep spreading the word about what it means to be an OT, recording his podcast to help families and launching his own business to serve more children. The world needs more people who want to use their strengths and abilities to better serve others in their community.
If you or someone you know is interested in learning about becoming an Occupational Therapist, visit nau.edu/ot. To listen to Keene’s podcast, search “Autism Family Resource” anywhere you listen to podcasts.
Alexandra (Alex) Fischer | College of Health & Human Services
(928) 523-2465 | Alexandra.Fischer@nau.edu