|A First for LVEP: Dr. Topping
Rebecca Topping '12, D'14 spent most of her childhood living alongside homeless men at the Lebanon Rescue Mission’s Biblical Rehabilitation Program. Her father, Paul, struggled with alcohol and drug abuse as a young man, but after recovering founded the men’s ministry in 1991. He served the Mission as program director until his retirement last year; her mother, Jenny, continues to head the food and volunteer service program at the Mission. Until recently, the Topping family lived in an apartment on the second floor of the Mission.
“When I was younger, I spent a lot of time volunteering at the Mission, serving and preparing meals with my mom,” Topping said. “My brothers and I were at the Mission all the time because our parents both worked there. We used to eat dinner with the men and go to church services with them. Basically, I ran all over that place—it felt like my own playground. It’s funny because I think a lot of people are afraid of that population—people coming out of jail to the Mission at the worst point in their life…but people just misunderstand other people.”
When Topping enrolled at Lebanon Middle School, she was identified by the school district for participation in the Lebanon Valley Education Partnership (LVEP) program at Lebanon Valley College. LVEP partners are students who are doing well academically, but have financial or other circumstances that may prevent them from attending college. Partners are matched with LVEP mentors—current LVC students—who guide the partners through high school and show them what college life is like. Two of Topping’s three siblings—Matthew ’13 and Jacob ’15—also are LVEP scholars.
“LVEP mentors took us bowling and to Hersheypark, ice hockey and football games. They even invited us to spend time on campus,” Topping said. “Visiting campus was a real motivation to get here someday. Getting to hang out in the dorms with the college kids when you’re in middle school is fun.”
The partnership, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2014¬–2015, also provides great financial benefits for these students. If students enroll in college preparatory classes and maintain a good academic standing while in high school, they become eligible for full tuition scholarships at LVC.
“My brothers and I always knew that we would go to college even if it meant being in debt. Some families in Lebanon don’t even think about college because they don’t know how they would ever get out of that kind of debt. My family is different from a lot of the families in the LVEP program¬—picking to be in missions work is great, but it’s not something that you pick to be able to send your four kids to college. They could have never paid to send us all here. LVEP has really blessed us because my parents got to do that kind of work and we still got the opportunity to come to a great school.”
The experience of being part of a family devoted to ministry and service instilled in Topping a deep desire to help others. Her high school biology teacher, Ralph Heister III ’90, studied biology at LVC. After seeing her aptitude for science, he encouraged her to consider physical therapy at the College.
“Mr. Heister took me on as an independent study student in honors biology and worked me through a research project, which was a great experience. My freshman roommate was also one of the students he mentored, and he would come eat pizza with us and make sure we were doing OK in school. He’s been a really good source of knowledge about science and sticking with it even through hard classes.”
Topping was admitted to the highly competitive doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program at LVC, which requires students to complete a bachelor’s degree in health science in three years followed by three years of rigorous physical therapy classes and clinical placements. Only 10 percent of high school senior applicants are admitted to the program, which is limited to 50 new students each fall.
A highly involved student at Lebanon High School, Topping continued her extracurricular involvement at LVC, serving as an LVEP mentor, pledging Phi Sigma Sigma, working part-time every semester, studying abroad, and serving as a resident assistant. After returning from a transformational semester in London, Topping began to doubt her commitment to pursuing her doctoral degree.
“When I came back from London, I became really worried about the professional phase of the program. I had heard how hard the classes are, and how you basically devote your life for three years and don’t do anything other than prepare to be a physical therapist. I thought I didn’t want that. I wanted to just make enough money to get back to Europe and travel and have fun.”
At a one-on-one meeting with her LVC area coordinator, Leah Leddy, Topping shared her concerns. Leddy, who had completed a master’s degree in counseling psychology, assuaged her fears.
“Leah said to me, ‘You’re so smart, you would not be living up to your potential if you just end it now. It’s not going to be easy; you’ll probably be crying some nights because you’re so overwhelmed,’ but she encouraged me to keep going on. And I remember that conversation thinking I just needed someone to tell me I could do it. I’m so glad now, it’s going to be such a great life doing PT¬—I really would have probably looked back and wondered why I didn’t just give it a shot.”
Topping has made a difference by continuing through the professional phase of the physical therapy program and serving as director of the Compassionate Undenied Rehabilitation Experience (CURE), a free physical therapy clinic for referred patients of the Lebanon Free Clinic and Volunteers in Medicine Free Health Clinic.
“It’s such an amazing mission to help people who don’t have enough money to afford physical therapy care. It’s something that I definitely feel passionate about because of my parents being in missions care,” Topping said. “Not a lot of schools have these PT free clinics, but we do. It’s such a blessing to get to reach out to the Lebanon population and help people who have been in pain their whole life. They finally have someone willing to listen to them and wanting to help them through it. For those patients we’re as much a psychological help as we are a physical help, because they just need someone to believe that they have this pain.”
Topping points to physical therapy professors Dr. Stan Dacko and Dr. Katie Oriel, the faculty advisors for the CURE Clinic, as inspirational mentors who “really believe in a project such as this free clinic. The PT faculty members have the DPT degree but they also have Ph.D.s and do research. They are on top of the newest technologies and treatment methods in the field. As a team, they push us to be better and to continue learning after we graduate. It’s kind of inspirational to know all the different things you can do and all of the different ways you can keep going with this career besides just getting a job and working that job for the rest of your life.”
After completing four clinical placements in a variety of physical therapy settings, Topping has spent the last weeks of her time as an LVC student at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem in an acute care setting.
“St. Luke’s is forward thinking with the health care changes, they’re right on top of it. They’re rolling out a huge mobility program, which is at the core of physical therapy. It’s a great place to be because it has great leadership. At LVC, we’re being prepared to work in settings like that. Our professors are really good at picking out the things that we really need to know¬—the newest evidence-based concepts that are going to be the wave of the future and the things that students didn’t have to learn two years ago.”
This May, Topping will become the first LVEP student to earn a doctoral degree from Lebanon Valley College, a huge milestone in her life and for the program. She will take the physical therapy board exam in July and hopes to find work as a physical therapist in Central/South Central Pennsylvania soon after.
“The DPT program is the hardest thing I’ve done in my whole life,” Topping said. “My father never finished high school, and we devoted our lives to ministry. I would never have gotten the opportunity to get a graduate degree without the LVEP program.”
Topping will graduate Saturday, May 10, with 560 other LVC students at the College’s 145th Baccalaureate and Commencement ceremonies. For information, visit www.lvc.edu/commencement.