Kitzenberg setting high standards for Montana’s first occupational therapy program

BILLINGS, MT — In the eyes of a parent with a son or daughter with autism, there is nothing more important than knowing the child is getting the best care and love possible from a health care provider, teacher or any caregiver.

One of those encounters started years ago for a Billings family whose child with autism could only communicate basic needs and wants with gestures and behaviors. That was until he met Dr. Paula Kitzenberg, the current director of University of Mary’s Occupational Therapy program in Billings, and an assistant professor. While the young boy could not talk, Kitzenberg brought out his ability to communicate through fine motor skills, like writing or coloring.

“It was an amazing revelation,” commented Kitzenberg, who worked with him sporadically over a 10-year period. ”It was the first time that he was able to answer the basic questions or ask questions of me or his mom.”

That discovery became a turning point for the child and a memorable moment for the family while Kitzenberg provided various OT care for their son. One of many that certainly led to Kitzenberg earning Montana’s first ever Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids (PLUK) Hero of the Year Award.

University of Mary Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy in Billings, MT, Dr. Paula Kitzenberg earns Montana’s first ever Parents, Let’s Unite for Kids (PLUK) Hero of the Year Award.

“My personal PLUK Hero (she has been my hero for years) is my son’s former occupational therapist,” said the boy’s mom in her nomination letter that led to this honor. “My son grew up with Paula. She discovered many of his talents, from handwriting to storytelling and swimming in the ocean. She survived his crying tantrums in the beginning days with her enormous patience by giving him his feeling of security and safety while being with her. I will be forever grateful to Paula for the years of teaching, patience and I dare say, the love she gave to my son.”

Kitzenberg is an example of the world-class faculty and instruction given at the University of Mary’s OT educational program in Billings. The Billings OT program started in 2013 out of the unmet need and severe shortage of therapists in the state, as Mary became the first OT educational program in Montana—now offering face-to-face instruction to three cohorts of up to 16 students each, that also includes one fieldwork cohort.

Many of the Billings students stay in Montana once they graduate to help fulfill the enormous OT need.

“We have been so impressed with the therapists we have hired from the University of Mary Occupational Therapy Program,”stated Traci Sell, director of the Pediatric Therapy Clinic in Billings. “They are very well-trained and prepared for the clinical aspect of being an occupational therapist, with tremendous work ethic and drive. The Mary graduates are passionate, conscientious and intelligent. Our community is very lucky to have such a well designed program producing incredible occupational therapists.”

Kitzenberg is a big part of that success. The accredited program is known for its desire and commitment to serve the community of Billings, the people of Montana and the region by providing its students with a rigorous curriculum; it emphasizes service to others with its Christian, Catholic and Benedictine values; has a 100 percent first-time pass rate on the National Board for Certification Therapy Exam; in 2019, students will receive hands-on learning with their very own pro bono clinic; and currently take part in service-learning projects in the community of Billings and they engage in fieldwork experiences across the United States and with the underserved populations in Guatemala and Peru.

“These include a variety of practice settings, including pediatrics, adult physical disabilities, acute care, rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities, mental health services and many others,” commented Dr. Janeene Sibla, a professor and the director of the Occupational Therapy Department at the University of Mary. “Paula is certainly a role model and mentor to our students. She demonstrates this in her interactions with clients which the students are witness to during their service-learning experiences. Paula’s love, care and respect for all people is very evident in her lectures and when she is sharing her vast experiences.”

One such experience that remains near and dear to her heart is with the boy with autism. As an occupational therapist, Kitzenberg was able to recognize early on his attempts to write and respond to her conversation.

“At first, we thought that he was just scribbling or drawing circles,” added Kitzenberg. “It took us a while to recognize letters and words in his efforts. As his skills developed, I would write out my questions and then have him write out the answers so that his mom could ‘read’ our conversations. Some of my favorite moments were when his answers didn’t necessarily make sense to me, but they did with his mom. One time, I asked him what was one thing he liked most about the small town where he lived? He clearly wrote out ‘the sign’ that didn’t make sense to me. When his mom read the answer, however, she teared up. It turns out that my patient’s brother had recently made a new ‘Welcome’ sign for the town as part of a school project. It was moments like this that helped his mom and I recognize that he was much more aware of his surroundings than anyone could have initially imagined.”

It’s moments like this that have had a lasting effect on the mother.

“Paula, I still have every and all notebooks you and my son filled with stories while in session,” she said in the closing of her award nomination letter. “Thank you for everything.”

To learn more about the University of Mary OT Billings program please visit