LivAbility Magazine
Portrait, Jill Sclease. She wears a black blouse and a gold necklace and smiles at the camera. In the background is a light watermark, shows a row of cars.

Story by Summer Sorg
Photo by Summer Sorg

Heat permeated the concrete and plastic bench on which I sat, signifying a typical Phoenix morning, as I waited for Jill Sclease in the Café Cultivate courtyard.

When she arrived, people greeted her warmly- a familiar face at Ability360. From these interactions and her thoughtful responses, it was apparent she had a patient and kind personality—motherly, really. She had a way of putting people at ease.

If you haven’t met her yet, chances are you will meet her at some community event in the future. If it’s within the realm of recreational therapy, Sclease actively partakes, from volunteering with Day at the Lake to helping people get back on the road with Driving to Independence.

“I love being able to help people overcome their challenges and find different ways to do things,” Sclease said.

She began her career as a recreational therapist at Banner University Medical Center, when it was Banner Good Samaritan Hospital, working there for 15 years before moving to St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center for the next five.

As a recreational therapist, she got three questions from people who were newly injured:

Will I ever walk again, or do things I used to?

Will I be able to have a relationship or children?

Will I be able to drive?

Accepting she couldn’t give any guarantee to the first question, she directed her efforts to questions two and three.

Sclease facilitated presentations on sexuality with a disability.

“That’s a crucial part of rehab; I wanted to do that,” she said.

“She teaches people just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you can’t have relationships,” said Karen Halgren, community resource specialist at the Arizona Spinal Cord Injury Association, where Sclease does some of her presentations.

Halgren has known Sclease for 16 years. They met at Banner in 2002, after Halgren sustained a spinal cord and brain injury in a motorcycle accident. They reconnected in 2004  when Sclease created a women’s support group for spinal cord injury at Banner.

“We’ve been friends ever since,” Halgren said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a more caring, loving person. She’s an amazing woman and mother.”

Family has always been central in Sclease’s life. “My parents live behind me; my sister lives a mile away.” She has two stepsons in their twenties, and an 11-year-old daughter. “My family is everything, supportive and involved in everything I do.” Sclease said.

Halgren noted Sclease tends to see everyone as “family.” Her motherly warmth is a hallmark of her career and volunteer work.

Sclease became a Certified Driving Rehabilitation Specialist aiming to tackle the frequently-asked question: Will I be able to drive?

“As a recreational therapist, part of my job was to get people back into the community. At Good Sam., I had the luxury of driving the adaptive vehicles, helping teach people to transfer in and out, and showing them the hand controls.”

When Sclease began working at Driving to Independence, Halgren was one of her first clients.  

She never expected to teach adaptive driving, but when the opportunity presented itself in 2010 at Driving to Independence, she leapt at it. “I love that final stage of independence,” she said. “It’s amazing how many doors open up when somebody’s able to return to driving.”

Marcos Castillo also met Sclease at Banner Good Samaritan Hospital. Castillo sustained a spinal cord injury from a car accident in 2001 and now uses a wheelchair. He said Sclease was pivotal in his rehabilitation. He is currently learning adaptive driving with her.

“She’s the first who emphasized independent living to me. Without her, I don’t know where I’d be today,” Castillo said. “She taught me it was okay to get out; to be in relationships; to be a normal part of the community. Because at that point, my little-town mind was telling me I was going to be locked away at home and wasn’t going to be able to do things in public and have a social life.”

Sclease taught Castillo to adapt to the situation and keep a positive outlook on it.

“She has an excellent way of knowing exactly how hard to push you. And she used to push me really hard,” he said.

He described her as a bulldog: “She can be snuggly and loving one minute, but if you tell her attack, she’s the one you want on your side.”

Castillo laughingly claims Sclease saved his life at a community re-integration outing.

They were at lunch with friends and family when Castillo started choking on some fries. He was still wearing a halo brace and a hard vest. Quadriplegia compromises the diaphragm, making it difficult to cough.

“I’m choking, about to pass out, and my mom is trying to help, but Jill tells her to sit back and give me a chance to recover on my own.”

When it became clear he was close to fainting, Sclease stuck her hand up the vest and pushed on his diaphragm, helping him cough it out.

“I was trying to catch my breath and she said, ‘you ready to go again?’ And we kept eating.”

When not working or volunteering, Sclease practices Watsu (water shiatsu), a form of aquatic therapy, involving floating a person, using the water’s resistance and doing shiatsu pressure points.

“It’s really good for relaxation, stretching and range of motion,” Sclease said.

One of the biggest challenges of her job is seeing people in pain, physical or emotional, and Watsu is “another form of helping people not be in pain; helping them get on with things they enjoy doing.”

In upcoming years, there’s no doubt Sclease will continue to make waves in the community.    

Summer Sorg

Summer Sorg
Writer / Photographer

Summer Sorg is a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication specializing in photography and digital journalism. Her heart lies in storytelling, nature and exploring. Summer plans to use her talents to highlight important issues and inspire people to care.

Read more by Summer Sorg.