When Donna Hoehn is working as a physical therapy assistant in a Matheny School classroom, her goal is to get as many students as possible “to experience life outside their wheelchairs.” Sitting in a wheelchair all day, Hoehn points out, is a little like “sitting in your car all day. Though you can move from one place to another, your position in relation to others never changes—you are still in your car.” Hoehn, a resident of Gillette, NJ, has been working at Matheny for more than 16 years. “My grandfather and his family were from Peapack,” she says, “so growing up, I often came to this area to visit. I had volunteered at Matheny before attending physical therapy assistant school.”
Donna Hoehn works with student Megan Blaxill on sitting balance, trunk strengthening, and stretching — all while Megan is out of her wheelchair.
Hoehn has an AS in PTA and a BS in biology from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ. She started at Matheny after taking a three-year break from PT to drive a tractor-trailer with her husband. “It was a lifelong desire,” she says. In 2009, Hoehn was selected as Physical Therapy Practitioner of the Year by ADVANCE for Physical Therapists & PT Assistants, a physical therapy news magazine. And this year, she was nominated by her Matheny School peers as their “Paraprofessional of the Year”. She is one of four finalists in the statewide competition in that category held by ASAH, a not-for-profit organization that serves the private special education community in New Jersey.
Three years after she joined Matheny, Hoehn unexpectedly lost her husband. Shortly after that, a young boy who had been a victim of shaken baby syndrome was admitted to Matheny, and he stole Hoehn’s heart. She eventually applied to become his foster parent and later legally adopted him. That was 10 years ago, but six years ago when Hoehn won the ADVANCE award, she told the magazine that her son, George, “really captures what I try to bring to everything I do.” George, now 17, attends the Midland School in North Branch, and, in Hoehn’s words, “is flourishing. He uses an electronic communication device for verbalization; he plays many sports; and he has worked at many different job locations and types of career exploration. His patience when trying to learn or master a new skill always reminds me how important it is to give each of the students the time and support they need to accomplish what they need and want to do.”
Hoehn was “honored to be nominated by my peers” for the ASAH award. “I work with an exceptional staff,” she says. “They are innovative, considerate, helpful, and truly caring about the students and patients.” One of the aspects of Matheny that is very special, she says, is a system that enables students with significant disabilities to learn in the classroom while, at the same time, “continuing to work on physical activities to improve their function. The staff is willing to integrate and implement a variety of strategies to meet each student’s needs.”