Allison Merlo ’12, G’13: The Importance of Play

From building playgrounds for children in need to teaching yoga to prisoners, an occupational therapist/triathlete constantly reaches beyond her comfort zone. teaser

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When Long Island native Allison Merlo ’12, G’13 moved to Arizona on a whim after graduating from Scranton with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in occupational therapy, she was looking to go outside her comfort zone. About two weeks after she arrived, Merlo’s boss at a pediatric outpatient clinic asked her to go to Haiti to provide OT services at an orphanage.

Merlo’s immediate answer: “Yes, when do I leave?”

Merlo consistently feels compelled to help others. It’s the common thread throughout a busy schedule of work, triathlon training and volunteering, and she attributes that to both her parents and her Scranton education.

“From a young age, volunteering was always a part of my life, and I know I wanted to go to Scranton because of its Jesuit ideals,” she said. “Service was ingrained in me in the OT program, and I realized that I love to be of service and humble myself in that aspect. I took a lot of opportunities to do that while at Scranton, and it made it easy for me to jump to saying yes to go to Haiti, even though I had just moved.”

Immersed at Scranton

While she was at Scranton, Merlo participated in an immersion service trip to Mexico City and, as vice president of the women’s crew team, she organized two spring break Habitat for Humanity service trips. During her graduate year in the occupational therapy program, she worked on a research study about the impact of service learning, which included a trip to Guyana.

“Scranton prepared me to be able to be comfortable in situations that a lot of people would be hesitant about, and willing to take things out of the realm of my comfort zone.”

Lauren S. Rivera, the University’s assistant vice president for Student Life and dean of students, traveled with Merlo on that service trip to Mexico City, where they lived with young girls at a juvenile residence and volunteered at a school.

“The girls loved Allison, who was always up for an impromptu game of jump rope or soccer, making string bracelets for hours on end, or celebrating their impending First Holy Communions a few days early,” Rivera said. “Allison truly embodies the Jesuit ideal of being a woman for and with others. The care, compassion and commitment that she has for the poor and marginalized in our world are inspiring.”

Outreach Theraplay

Merlo went on to become a school-based occupational therapist and a therapist in a pediatric outpatient clinic, but because of her experience in Haiti and her service experiences at Scranton, she founded a nonprofit to help children and has rounded out her day jobs by volunteering.

She and a friend were traveling to Haiti twice a year to volunteer at the orphanage and special-needs preschool, each time filling their suitcases with medical and therapy supplies, when they looked at each other and asked, “What can we leave there so that they can always have therapy, even when we aren’t there?”

They decided on an accessible playground because, Merlo said, “Play is a vital part of child development. We wanted to have an impact that would be sustainable and resourceful.”

The two formed a nonprofit, calling it Outreach Theraplay. They raise money through family and friends, as well as fundraising events, and this November will build their first playground at the special-needs school in Haiti. Plans are underway to ship pieces of a playground to the growing special-needs school in Haiti, and Merlo will lead a team that will assemble it.

The playground is from a Head Start facility in Pennsylvania that got a brand-new playground and donated the old one to Outreach Theraplay. Once that playground is up and running, Merlo plans to continue to provide play resources to the missions her organization supports in Costa Rica and Mexico.

In her 20s, Merlo decided to run a half marathon and a marathon as “bucket list” experiences, but then her marathon time was so fast that she qualified for the Boston Marathon. After unleashing this untapped potential as a runner, Merlo decided to give triathlons a try. And much like that first marathon, it was a rousing success; she qualified for the U.S. Nationals in her first triathlon. She went on to qualify for the World Championships with Team USA and will compete in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, in October.

She often uses her races to raise money for Outreach Theraplay. Last year, she participated in Project DM Xtreme Triathlon, which finishes at the peak of Mount Humphreys, the highest point in Arizona. This particular event requires participants to raise money for charity, and Merlo’s sponsors supported her organization. Merlo is the only female triathlete to finish this event — and that’s just one of her notable accomplishments in triathlons, something else she picked up on a bit of a whim.

Testing the Limits

The triathlons test her limits physically, but volunteering with the Prison Yoga Project stretches her comfort zone in an entirely different way. The organization offers yoga classes at two Phoenix facilities, one for adult men and one for juveniles. Merlo got involved about two years ago, when she saw a post in a local yoga instructor Facebook group asking for volunteers to teach in the prisons.

“I usually work with kids, who are so innocent, and this is so out of the spectrum of any other community I serve,” Merlo said. “But I felt like I had to do something.”

Driving to the facility for the first of 12 weekly yoga classes with incarcerated men, Merlo said she was nervous. When she entered the multipurpose room at Towers Jail, she was surprised and relieved to encounter a group of men who were open and receptive to yoga and its emphasis on the unity of mind, body and spirit.

Merlo’s classes introduce them to basic yoga poses, and she offers demonstrations and examples from the front of the room while the participants try each pose on their own mat. Unlike in many yoga studios, she doesn’t offer hands-on assistance, for safety reasons. But she still feels connected to her yoga students.

“It’s such a powerful experience, to see how much they want to change. It’s amazing what you see transform in them, how much that yoga practice can change who they are when they walk out those doors,” she said. “Now it’s one of my favorite things to do.”

By testing her limits, Merlo has apparently discovered her full potential.

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