By Laine Zizka
“The first 72 hours felt very unreal,” said TCU graduate Sofia Tilton, recalling scenes of friends, family, and strangers having to escape flooded homes by any means necessary – from canoes to helicopters to simply wading through Hurricane Harvey’s rising floodwaters.
Tilton lives in Houston and received her master’s degree in 2008 at TCU’s Davies School of Communication of Sciences & Disorders. Currently, she serves on the board of directors and as treasurer for a local Houston nonprofit outpatient service, Rehabilitation Services Volunteer Project. In addition to her five years in those positions, Tilton also serves as a volunteer speech-language pathologist and the director of speech therapy for RSVP and owns her own practice.
As an organization, they provide free outpatient care and equipment to individuals with serious neurological and physical disabilities, allowing them to lead lives of maximum independence and meaning.
It was in her capacities at RSVP that Tilton saw a niche to be filled in shelters amid Harvey’s deluge and devastation.
“It was only natural for RSVP to utilize its available resources, such as medical equipment, out to the shelters,” Tilton said, noting that many were not able to take their wheelchairs and walkers with them or had their equipment damaged in the storm.
From there, RSVP partnered with United Spinal Association of Houston and the City of Houston to collect and distribute donated medical equipment. Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, even helped spread the word of RSVP’s Harvey relief efforts, gaining their work publicity and effectiveness.
“The response from the Houston area was incredible,” said Tilton. “We were overwhelmed with how many people were ready to help by donating supplies or their time.”
RSVP held their largest distribution clinic Sept. 9, managing more than 100 volunteers and receiving more than 150 pieces of donated medical equipment – everything from wheelchairs to bathroom equipment, from diapers to toiletries.
Looking back, Tilton thinks it was their collaboration with the City of Houston and other local organizations that held the key to reaching those who were desperately in need, as well as the volunteers from across the Houston area just days after the storm hit.
“Houston immediately came together as a community,” said Tilton. “We received an overwhelming amount of support from our community and throughout the nation.”
Tilton’s path to working in speech therapy and rehabilitation has been in the making for a while. She recalls a childhood best friend who had speech issues, who first introduced her to the concept of speech therapy.
Her interest was solidified when, as Tilton applied to graduate schools, her sister suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in a car accident.
“To this day, she continues to receive therapy,” Tilton said. “Witnessing the amazing rehabilitation team she’s had motivated me to pursue my career in speech therapy in a rehabilitation setting.”
Since then, Tilton has done work at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston and owns a private practice where they treat adults and children. Following her belief in the importance of early exposure to the profession of speech therapy, she welcomes students to observe both at RSVP and her private practice. It’s one of her favorite parts of her job.
“I love that every day is different and the connection you make with the patients and family members,” Tilton said. “The best therapy sessions are when they teach you something new.”
At TCU, her training in the bilingual speech-language pathology master’s program and all of the clinical experience and education not only prepared her to be a leader, but gave her an understanding of the importance of giving back to the community.
In 2014, RSVP received the TSH Foundation Suzie Elkins Community Service Endowment Fund. They put it towards their Bilingual Brain Injury Education Project where the funds went toward purchasing Spanish communication books for those with severe dysarthria and aphasia and literature in both Spanish and English for home programs.
Tilton is very optimistic about RSVP’s efforts to continue their legacy of community service and providing rehabilitative care to individuals across Houston, with the help of Houston’s mayor and other city organizations.
Houston is still in recovery in certain areas, but that won’t stop Tilton’s indomitable spirit from finding a way to help.