By Annelise Krafft
From a young age, Scottsdale Airpark resident Matt LeVac has known how to make the best of any opportunity.
“I grew up in Hawaii and moved to Payson with my dad when I was 12, after my parents split up,” LeVac says. “It was definitely a big adjustment, but I look at it as a blessing. Payson was a wonderful place to grow up, and I actually ended up meeting my wife at Payson High.”
After enrolling at GCU in 2006, LeVac was faced with a challenge when his major was dropped in 2008 as a result of the recession. His passion outside of the classroom ended up pointing him in a new direction.
“I was on the baseball team at GCU for three years, and that was what prompted my advisers to recommend pursing a degree in exercise science,” LeVac says. “It was a great decision, because I was able to use that knowledge to get into graduate school to become an occupational therapist.”
Occupational therapy focuses on improving the ability to do activities required in daily life. Similar to physical therapy, which focuses on improving movement and mobility of certain muscles, the purpose of occupational therapy is to help perform daily tasks more easily, including basic skills from eating to personal hygiene.
After graduating from GCU in 2010, LeVac continued his education at A.T. Still University of Health Sciences, a post-professional school in Mesa.
“My wife, Tanya, was a huge part of my success in grad school, as she made sure school was the only thing I had to worry about,” LeVac says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her. We make a great team.”
In 2014, LeVac began his career in geriatrics, working with elderly residents at a Fountain Hills nursing home. In 2015, he found a new way to apply his passion for helping others, this time with individuals who have developmental disabilities.
“I took a leap of faith and joined the therapy team at ACCEL in the middle of the school year, without having any background in private placement schools,” LeVac says. “I had no idea what it would be like until I started working there, and it turned out to be a perfect fit.”
ACCEL is a nonprofit organization and private school that serves individuals who have developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, cognitive disabilities and behavioral disorders. Founded in 1980, ACCEL is celebrating 40 years of providing exceptional services to disadvantaged and underserved populations.
“Everyone who works at ACCEL is amazing and incredibly dedicated to our students, adult members and clients,” LeVac says. “Our goal is to help every individual in our care live a life of dignity and self-worth.”
In 2017, LeVac was promoted from occupational therapist to therapy supervisor, overseeing ACCEL’s entire therapy program while still making time to work individually with students.
“In the school environment, our main goal is to help students feel less overwhelmed in the classroom and focus on a student’s ‘readiness to learn,’” LeVac says. “OTs work on skills like handwriting, sensory processing and fine motor skills—all based on the student’s individual goals and academic performance.”
With individual needs come different equipment, techniques and approaches to get the best outcome.
“Every child is different: For some, they are successful using a paper with symbols as a tool to communicate, but others need expensive devices,” LeVac says.
“I noticed that a lot of the assistive technology I wanted was either incredibly expensive or needed to be created and didn’t exist yet, so I looked for another solution.”
After attending an online webinar with ATMakers.org, LeVac found his answer. The website offers free online resources that aim to solve problems in assistive technology by using the skills and tools of the “maker” community, pairing the two together to build customized technology for the professionals who utilize assistive technology and the individuals who benefit from it.
“The webinar opened my eyes to how partnering with the ‘maker’ community can help professionals who work with individuals who have disabilities find alternative and affordable equipment,” LeVac says.
In 2019, LeVac started the Arizona Chapter of Makers Making Change, which connects people who have disabilities to volunteer “makers” to build assistive technologies. For the “makers,” LeVac sought out partnerships with high school engineering programs, giving local students the opportunity to get involved.
“Our main partnership has been with Bioscience High School in Downtown Phoenix, typically working with the seniors in its engineering program,” LeVac says. “Right now, these students are focused on the Makers of Change Assistive Technology Challenge happening this fall.”
The eight-week challenge, which runs from September to November, is a program of Southwest Human Development that challenges the brightest up-and-coming minds to apply their knowledge to helping improve equipment for young children with disabilities. All products created and funds raised benefit Southwest Human Development’s ADAPT Shop, helping young children with disabilities become independent and active participants in their home, school and community.
Outside of the challenge, LeVac and his “makers” also tackle projects that can be used by ACCEL students and adult members.
“Our biggest project right now is a giant, 6-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide Connect 4 board, which will be fully automated,” LeVac says. “We were delayed with in-person activities shutting down earlier this year due to COVID-19 but are looking forward to have it completed in October.”
LeVac’s personal toy testers, his 4- and 6-year-old sons CJ and Parker, also look forward to the completion of their dad’s projects.
“I always look for a way to get them involved and help them understand the basic engineering process,” LeVac says. “What I love most about my job is the ability to adapt or create something to meet a person’s need, and it’s been really rewarding to be able to share that with my sons. They and my wife have been the biggest blessing.”