Janna Syester '07 MOT receives CHHS first Distinguished Alumni Award


Janna Syester '06, '07 MOT does not consider her job as a home health occupational therapist as "work."

Instead, it is her mission, one she generously puts into action by helping adults in the U.S. and at-risk and homeless elderly in Romania.

Last fall, Syester was presented with the Distinguished Alumni Award from the St. Ambrose College of Health and Human Services. It was the first year the college presented the award, and it recognizes an alumnus who graduated ten or more years ago and exemplifies the mission of SAU through outstanding leadership, scholarship, or community service. 

Syester is a home health occupational therapist for Advanced Home Care in Charlotte, North Carolina, and chairman of the board for Elder Orphan Care, a non-profit organization that serves elderly in Romania who are at-risk or homeless. Prior to earning her degree, she served with other charitable organizations in Haiti, Mexico and Ukraine.  

Lynn Kilburg PhD, professor and director of the Occupational Therapy Department, said Syester is a living example of an "Ambrosian" in her local community and beyond. "Her dedication to the philosophy of Occupational Therapy and Occupational Justice have added value to the Elder Orphan Care program and the individuals she encounters," she wrote when she nominated Syester for the award.  

"Because of this, we hold Janna as an example of someone who exemplifies the mission of our program - 'an ethical, innovative, and sensitive health professional engaged in lifelong learning who serves as a socially responsive individual dedicated to optimizing the occupational participation of others in a diverse and global society,'" she added. 

Syester was overwhelmed to be chosen. "Certainly I was very honored and humbled. Growing up, my parents modeled what it was to be a giving person, and St. Ambrose and its mission honed that in me and put me on a good path," she said. 

Syester planned to be an educator. Three years into her undergraduate studies, she began student teaching and realized she didn't like the formal classroom setting. She became a professional nanny and worked for several families over the next 20 years, then decided to take some time to evaluate what she wanted to do next.

While working part-time for a church she went on mission trip to Ukraine and saw a number of children with disabilities. She wondered if and how therapy could improve their quality of life. A church lay leader suggested Syester look into the field of occupational therapy. She did some job shadowing and discovered her passion.

Syester finished some prerequisites then transferred to St. Ambrose. She majored in psychology, then entered the MOT program. 

"On a day-to-day basis it is a helping profession and SAU gave me the foundation to recognize what I do professionally, and as a volunteer, as a mission," she said. "I want my whole life to be a mission."

For the past seven years, Syester has traveled annually to Romania with Elder Orphan Care. The non-profit partners with Viorel and Florica Pasca in Romania, a couple who shelter homeless elderly in 12 (soon to be 14) care homes, and provide services to elderly in rural villages, too.

Syester said homelessness and isolation are issues that impact the elderly in the U.S. too, and Elder Orphan Care is currently assessing how it can help residents here. Any expansion of its mission and services could lead to internship and clinical opportunities for SAU occupational therapy students, and Syester is excited about that possibility.

"We need to bring the younger generation on board to sustain and carry our mission forward for the next generation to come," she said.  

Syester is a big proponent of finding a need, something you are passionate about and using it to help someone. She encourages everyone to get involved.

"You don't have to create a huge program, you can do little things," she said, adding that just visiting someone who is usually alone can have a big impact. "Everyone has something they can give." 

Click here to learn more about the mission of Elder Orphan Care.

The St. Ambrose College of Health and Human Services is accepting nominations for the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award. Click here to learn how to submit a nomination by June 1, 2018.


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