When the chemicals used in the re-lacquering of her French horn irritated her throat and voice box during her junior year at Hillsdale College, impeding her ability to practice music and sing, Rebecca Schoon ’13 was prompted to reconsider pursuing a career in music.
Although discouraged, she did not wallow in self-pity. Instead, she gleaned purpose and inspiration from her misfortune and decided to devote her talents to helping people overcome vocal disorders. Schoon now empowers children through her valiant work in speech pathology.
Raised in a musical family, Schoon began taking voice and French horn lessons in high school. She continued with both studies at Hillsdale, playing in the orchestra and singing for the college and chamber choirs.
As a Hillsdale student, Schoon honed her musical skills. Her professors agree her dedication was formidable.
“Becky was a very serious and engaged student who was always prepared and anxious to learn,” said Artist-Teacher of Music Melissa Osmond, who was Schoon’s vocal instructor. “She is smart, affable and lovely to be around.”
Professor of Music James Holleman worked with Schoon to develop her musical talent during her time as a student at Hillsdale College. He, too, was impressed by Schoon’s resolve.
“She was very self-critical, which led to major strides as both a vocalist and French horn player,” he said.
Schoon was a member of the Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity, and recalls spending the bulk of her time outside of classes rehearsing.
After graduating with majors in music and economics, Schoon studied speech pathology at Vanderbilt University. She credits Hillsdale with instilling in her the tenacity and inquiry skills that propelled her through Vanderbilt’s rigorous program.
“Hillsdale prepared me for Vanderbilt in that I wasn’t afraid of new topics or avenues of research,” she said.
While studying at Vanderbilt, Schoon discovered she worked well with children. When her niece was born with a speech impairment, she decided to pursue pediatric vocal therapy.
Upon completing her graduate studies and clinical fellowship, she returned to Valparaiso, Indiana, where her parents live, to work for the State of Indiana’s First Steps program, which provides early intervention resources and services to infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays.
Schoon now works for the Jacob’s Ladder Center, a speech therapy clinic that partners with First Steps. She works 10 to 12 hour days, leaving the house around 7:30 a.m. and seeing between six and eight patients daily. She conducts in-home therapy session, working with 0- to 3-year-old patients, and training parents to work with and assist their children.
“Helping parents appreciate a child’s strengths and work through weaknesses to become a happy family, or seeing a mom get excited to hear her child say ‘Mama’ for the first time makes me feel like all the skills I have worked to develop are being used as an investment in the community,” she said.
During therapy sessions, Schoon engages her patients in constructive play to help them make connections. They learn to express themselves by imitating her expressions and verbalizations. Schoon uses a variety of activities– including sign language, word modeling, and playing with bubbles and toys– but has found singing to be the most relatable, flexible, and accessible tool.
“I find that singing is so universal in terms of what children are ready to do,” she said. “It’s not my college repertoire. I’m really good at making the elephant noise because of my French horn background.”
Schoon strives to conduct bagless therapy sessions, in which she does not rely on any resources outside patients’ homes, thus enabling them to practice their skills throughout the week without investing in costly equipment or toys. One of her fondest memories is of a session in which she engaged her young patient with nothing but a sock.
Schoon serves Indiana’s Lake County, which includes the city of Gary. Because of the adverse socioeconomic condition of the county, few therapists are willing to work there, leading to Schoon’s high caseload.
“If it’s not me, it’s no one,” she said. “So I feel a responsibility,.”
Laura Cohen, Clinical Coordinator of Jacob’s Ladder Center, considers Schoon a “wonderful addition” to her team.
“Rebecca serves lower income areas and deals with a lot of difficult kids and parents,” Cohen said. “She does a wonderful job connecting with them and their parents, and helping them achieve breakthroughs.”
Cohen also said she is impressed by Schoon’s ingenuity.
“She once did an entire therapy session with a fly in the room, talking about where it landed and where it was flying,” she said. “Her strengths are thinking outside the box and using what is available to her.”
Though therapy sessions are usually joyful, Schoon’s work is not untouched by tragedy. Human suffering, pain, and misfortune, are intrinsic to any therapeutic career, she explained, citing the deaths of past patients who suffered additional ailments as devastating. She credits Hillsdale College with equipping her with the wisdom and strength to grapple with the challenges presented her.
“The things I learned at Hillsdale about love and responsibility have helped me process suffering and realize what my role is in making it better without getting burned out or jaded by the challenges that are there,” she said. “Love is sacrifice. You will not be unscathed by it.”
But Schoon said the gratification she finds in helping children find their voices far outweighs the obstacles presented by her work.
“The soul’s presence is often demonstrated in our skills,” she said. “Where does that soul reside when our skills have been damaged? Whether the skills are fully regained or not, the soul remains immovable, but my work helps people have a voice to defend their human dignity.”