Penn State Mont Alto students deepen roots in community outreach and service

Occupational therapy assistant students assist with Gala for Hope for Kamdyn's Kure
Stephan Kessler

Stephan Kessler provided occupational therapy to 4-year-old Kamdyn Hartung during 2016-17.

Credit: Debra Collins

MONT ALTO, Pa. ― After his first birthday, now 4-year-old Kamdyn Hartung was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy ― a disease that affects strength via limited connections of motor nerve cells in the spinal cord.

Penn State Mont Alto students are not only spending time with Hartung at his home ― engaging him in “meaningful occupation of play” ― they are also assisting with The Gala for Hope for Kamdyn’s Kure, according to Angela Hissong, Penn State Mont Alto occupational therapy assistant program director.

Students in the 2017 occupational therapy assistant (OTA) cohort have assembled silent auction baskets and will volunteer during the day and evening of the gala, which includes dinner and cocktails, a silent auction, and raffle items. The event will be held in Hartung’s honor on April 7 at the Green Grove Gardens in Greencastle.

Hissong sees the gala as an opportunity for students to deepen their roots in community outreach and service ― a primary objective of the occupational therapy assistant program.

“Stephan Kessler (class of 2016) worked with Kamdyn while he was going through the OTA program,” she said. “Several current students are interested in working with Kamdyn this year as well.”

“It is a wonderful relationship that has been formed with this family and we hope to assist with the gala many years into the future,” Hissong added.

For Kessler, the experience of spending time with Hartung helped to define his career. “Now I want to do pediatrics, whether that is in the school system or home health, I know I want to work with children as an occupational therapy practitioner,” he said.

“Kamdyn loved Stephan coming over and looked forward to their weekly ‘play dates,’” said Hartung’s mother, Amber. “We loved having new ideas brought to us with ways to improve Kamdyn’s care. It also helped build up Kamdyn’s confidence and abilities to work with someone other than a family member. Our goal for Kamdyn is to be as independent as possible and are so happy for any opportunities that help him grow.”

Kessler’s main objective was to keep Hartung moving. “I tried to make every minute I spent with him fun,” he said. “As we learn in the program any activity or task can be made enjoyable if you take the time to really understand the person you are working with.”

“We spent most of our time building train tracks with his younger brother, Koby, and playing with Thomas the Train,” said Kessler. “When I say he loves trains, I really mean he loves trains!”

Using the clinical reasoning skills he learned from his Penn State instructors, Kessler designed unique therapeutic activities that fit Hartung’s needs and interests, such as exercising his hands and arms by having him place small black balls of clay resembling coal in an open freight car of an electric train as it passed him by.

“Some days we would change up the activity by slowing the train down or using smaller pieces of clay,” said Kessler. “Kamdyn loved to do that and wanted to do it every time.”

The experience of working with Hartung has made Kessler more patient and strengthened his confidence in his ability to apply his OTA skills and make an impact in each person he works with.

“I am happy to have worked with such an amazing child,” said Kessler.

For more information about The Gala for Hope for Kamdyn’s Kure, contact Amber Hartung at [email protected] or 240-291-2333. To register to attend or donate, visit

For more information about the occupational therapy assistant program, contact Angela Hissong at [email protected] or 717-749-6165. The program is interested in learning more about community causes they may assist with each year.

April is Occupational Therapy Month. Begun in 1980 by the American Occupational Therapy Association, OT Month celebrates the profession of occupational therapy practitioners who assist people across the lifespan to participate in meaningful occupations that engage their minds, bodies and spirits.