We are looking to hear about the amazing work that Play Therapists in Iowa are doing!! Do you know someone that has inspired you or others to be a better play therapist? Do you know someone that has worked to advance Play Therapy in their community? We want to recognize them for their work! The recipients will be presented with these awards at our annual conference in September. Click here to see the criteria for each award.

2023 Award Winners

Play Therapist of the Year Award– Kelli Switzer

Kelli has been an LISW for 15 years and is also an RPT-S offering play therapy supervision to those wanting to learn from the best. She is the owner of Switzer Counseling Services in Marengo. Kelli is incredible to witness in the play therapy room and has been able to create a thriving private practice. Her dedication to this work doesn’t stop at the office. She is a true advocate for her clients and in the community she lives. It’s easy to see the care she has for those she works with firsthand- helping to connect them with resources and services including in home supports such as BHIS, transportation, coordination with medical professionals and school accommodations. She has often volunteered her time to provide education within the community and worked with schools. 

Kelli served on the IAPT board for several years, and was a key player in expanding the current vendors & exhibitors areas of the fall conferences. She continues to be an active support behind the scenes.. She continues to provide supervision and actively pursues ongoing continuing education and training. She utilizes experiential modalities even in supervision- helping therapists really understand in a personal way how these modalities work. She is trained in EMDR, AutPlay, Theraplay, and regularly utilizes sand tray. She is a regular attendee at IAPT conferences and trainings and participates with our social media and networking events. 

Kelli does all of her work with the upmost professionalism, consistency, and care for those she works with. She is a testament of what our profession stands for.

Mentorship Award– Colleen Grote

Colleen Grote earned her PHD in counseling supervision to help grow professional counselors in this field.  Dr. Grote works with Heart and Solutions and leads a team of clinical directors and is available to all team members as a resource for case consultation, especially regarding play therapy.   She also completes licensure supervision for temporarily licensed therapists as well as providing supervision for fully licensed therapists who are looking to become RPTs. 

Colleen and her agency are approved by the Association for Play Therapy (APT) to  provide continuing education for mental health professionals looking to become RPTs. She creates and hosts live and recorded webinars for her agency providers as well as external providers

Colleen demonstrates, holds accountability, and is a great role model for ethical practices within the field of mental health. 

Rookie of the Year Award– Madi Miller

Madi graduated from Mount Mercy’s Marriage and Family Therapy program about 2 years ago.  She hit the ground running and is currently employed at Prism Therapy Group in Hiawatha, working mostly with children, adolescents, and families. She is incredibly passionate about play therapy work and is working toward her RPT status. 

Madi brings so much joy, fun, and spontaneity, in her work with children. Her clients often can’t wait to see and work with her, even though at times they know they will be digging into some of the deeper therapeutic work. She has quickly created a positive reputation in our community and is highly sought after as a play therapist. Madi has taken a great deal of interest in advancing her learning in this area. She has taken active steps to continue her education and seek supervision to hone her play therapy skills.

Madi also often goes out of her way for her clients, so they feel seen, supported, and heard. For example, she will often make sure to get certain supplies and things needed to support the work she does- from painting supplies, mindfulness jars, adding to her miniature collection, and ingredients for slime… she isn’t afraid of letting kids explore, create, and get a little messy! There has been more than one time in which glitter has found its way into many of our common spaces or opened the staff fridge to find “experiments” that her clients have created.  She is amazing at creating rapport and making a safe environment that feels comfortable for kids and caregivers alike. 

Madi has also served as the first student member for IAPT- helping with newsletters, raffle baskets, and attending meetings and supports for IAPT conferences/trainings. She is an honor to work with, and so invested in the well-being of children. Madi truly puts the “YAY” in Play!

School-Based Play Therapist of the Year Award– Bailey Ryan

Bailey works at Clear Creek Amana CSD, Tiffin Elementary School and Oak Hill Elementary Schools.  She is an out-of-the-box thinker and a valuable resource to our small team and our entire district as a whole.  She uses her mad tech skills to create newsletters, google classrooms and uplifting posters.  She is always willing to support and teach other staff.  

Bailey is a valued member of our PBIS Tier II and Tier III teams.  She does school-based therapy as well as observe in classrooms and give our teachers guidance on individual student plans. She is who we go to when we have a mental health emergency in the building with a student. Bailey advocates for the students she serves as well as other students she interacts with at school. She is quick to jump in and help and she is always a phone call away when we need her!!  

Bailey is a ray of optimism.  She greets each student with a smile and her warmth, in addition to her uplifting t-shirts and her radiant earrings of course.  

Bailey is dedicated to her students and takes time to build a strong connection with caregivers and gives all her energy to those she serves.  She does an outstanding job helping students find self-love for their own unique and individual qualities.  

Our students love their time with Bailey and they take pride in the skills they have learned with her.  They instantly feel safe in her presence and it is that feeling they will carry with them forever.

Bailey is versed in a variety of social services.  She will continue to grow, serve and bloom!

Friend of Play Therapy Award–The Olson Clinic

Olson Clinic is where MFT Master’s students receive education and practice their therapy craft. The Olson clinic provides a wonderful community service in supporting many in the community the opportunity for amazing therapy services, often at very reduced cost and appointment availability on evenings and weekends.This fills a major gap for many without insurance, on fixed income, or have limits due to their work or school schedules to receive much needed services, especially for children and families.

 They serve all populations, but the work they do with children and families is particularly noteworthy. Over the years, I have seen the passion for play therapy grow in the Olson clinic, which now has a dedicated space for students to provide play therapy. The student therapists are supervised by a number of supervisors with vested interest and/or RPT-S credentials.

Their Master’s programing has a number of courses focused on education of play therapy and supports continued learning for the RPT designation and/or CEU and networking opportunities focused on play therapy education and best practices. These are not required courses to offer for a Master’s Program but have been created due to their dedication and understanding that play therapy education is important and makes a difference! 

The Olson Clinic has very generously hosted several networking events including toy swaps in the last couple of years. In the two years since starting a student IAPT board position these roles have been filled by Alumni of this program, which demonstrates just how much this Clinic and program are dedicated to the power of play. 

Olson Clinic goes above and beyond in supporting beginning clinicians the importance and power of play.

2022 Award Winners

Play Therapist of the Year – Nikki Pauli

Nikki works in Cedar Falls and is an excellent leader as a consultant/supervisor! As a supervisor, she will be your best cheerleader and advocate, while also challenging you to think outside of the box and dig deeper into conceptualizing clients. In trainings, I have observed her teach and encourage the therapist’s inner knowledge regarding any questions or struggles they may have. She works hard to answer any questions about the therapeutic process and seek outside support as needed. She inspires therapists to be their full selves in the room while maintaining a professional manner. She gives grace for mistakes and uses it as a learning opportunity.

Nikki has worked very diligently in the past year in building up new and existing play therapists.  She is a Lead Trainer and Consultant for the League of Extraordinary Adlerian Play Therapist.  She has also presented at various state Play Therapy conferences, and also at the national conference.  She is very invested in supporting not only Play Therapists, but students, counselors, and social workers.  Nikki also works with the next generation of clinicians through the University of Northern Iowa.  She works tirelessly to provide quality trainings and assistance to clinicians, whatever their skill level.  She has a willingness to share her knowledge, skills, and expertise with her mentees.  She also provides guidance and constructive feedback while encouraging her mentees to gain confidence in their own skills and intellectual independence.  Nikki demonstrates a clear interest in the mentoring relationship, showing care for her mentees and treating them with respect. 

Mentorship Award- Melissa Paulsen Oberbreckling

Melissa is one of the most dedicated individuals to the field of mental health and in the areas associated to play therapy. Melissa is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and has completed her RPT-S credentials as well. Melissa has been promoting play therapy for many years now from being part of the IAPT board of directors, providing play therapy to individuals and families, overseeing clinical programs, and now opening her own business that provides play therapy to the community that she works in.

Through Melissa’s previous place of employment her role was a clinical director over numerous departments within the organization. Melissa utilized this role to guide the therapists she was supervising to train them in the field of play therapy and assist them in building good clinical skills in this field. Melissa also fostered her supervisee’s to move into private practice and gain necessary clinical skills to give back to the mental health field and to other up and coming play therapists. Melissa has since moved into private practice as well and employs other therapists within her practice and continues to give back to both play therapy field and to her community. Through her new practice she continues to provide supervision to the therapists she employs and assists them in refining both their clinical skills along with play therapy skills.

Melissa works within her community that she practices in to promote and enhance the services that are being offered. Melissa has given numerous community presentations on mental health to educate those around her on mental health needs. Some of the presentations she has given are to the Jones County Sheriff Department, Jones County Partnership for Protecting Children, Zion Lutheran Church, and Jones County Safe and Healthy Youth Coalition.

Melissa served on the Iowa Association for Play Therapy board for several years and severed as the IAPT secretary during her last term. Melissa was able to streamline much of the secretary position while she was in office and guided the board to being more tech savvy and gaining wisdom in additional ways to promote IAPT throughout the state of Iowa. During her role on the IAPT board she offered support to all members through IAPT. After resigning from the IAPT board, Melissa has remained active in guiding those who have filled her shoes and assisted in providing support to the current board members.

Melissa is so deserving of this award through the many years of practice, supervision, and promotion of play therapy across the state of Iowa. Melissa is always willing to help out when she is needed and provide knowledge and wisdom to whoever she meets.

Rookie of the Year – Elizabeth Tursi

Elizabeth has become a go-to amongst her peers when it comes to working with young children and their families. Elizabeth has a warm and calm demeanor that puts clients at ease and is able to quickly adapt to the needs of those she serves. Elizabeth brightly greets clients in the waiting room and it is evident that they are excited to spend time with her in the therapy space. Elizabeth works hard to engage the family as a whole in order to provide the best support she can to the entire family system. Elizabeth provides therapy through a trauma informed lens and is able to develop a deep understanding of not only the child she is working with, but the parents or guardians involved in the child’s care. Elizabeth frequently collaborates with families outside of session and other providers involved in the family’s care to form a more comprehensive conceptualization of the client and their family.

Elizabeth has had many local and international work experiences that have given her the opportunity to engage with clients with diverse backgrounds. She has taken these experiences back to her community and workplace and is able to provide children and families a space where they feel safe to empowered, validated, and safe to share their life stories. Elizabeth utilizes Theraplay®-informed practice and filial therapy techniques to not only promote growth inside the therapy space, but to aid parents in feeling confident in utilizing skills in their own homes. Elizabeth is able to maintain a calm and caring presence when working with high stress, high conflict families and often seeks supervision from both supervisors and peers. Elizabeth quickly and effectively implements feedback received into the care that she provides children and families.

Elizabeth practices ethically and always seeks out support if she is in situations where there is an ethical dilemma and she needs to make a decision. Elizabeth is professional and though she has been at her workplace for less than a year, many new staff have shadowed her sessions to learn how to interact with young children. Elizabeth will also be taking on an intern in the fall to further share her talents and help budding therapists develop. Elizabeth is actively pursuing her RPT credential and looks forward to continuing to utilize the power of play in her therapy space.

2021 Award Winners

Play Therapist of the Year – Brigid Christianson LISW, RPT-S

Brigid is one of the most dedicated individuals at promoting and providing play therapy.  Brigid is a licensed independent social worker and has also completed her RPT-S in 2005.  Since that time Brigid has started her own private practice and has enhanced services in her community and around the state of Iowa to ensure therapists are adequately trained and people have access to services.  In addition, Brigid partners with her local school to provide services in the school, which allows for easier access to services. 

Brigid served on the Iowa Association for Play Therapy board for many years and served as the board President for several of those terms. Brigid always goes above and beyond what is expected of her to ensure everyone’s needs are met.  Serving on the board with Brigid, she would always push every board member to generate new and innovate ideas to promote play therapy across the state of Iowa.  Brigid never wanted to become complacent in those areas and always was seeking better ways to engage our members and new individuals interested in the field of play therapy. Being on the board with Brigid she would always ensure every decision was ethically sound and each element was addressed.  In situations where there are questions associated to ethical dilemmas where the answer wasn’t clear, Brigid always seeks advice and counsel to ensure all ethics are upheld. 

After resigning from the IAPT board, she has remained active part of guiding our current board members and volunteering any opportunity that she gets to continue to give back and be involved.  Brigid is deserving of this award due to her years of dedication to the field of play therapy. Brigid is one of the most giving and self-less individuals to both her clients and colleagues. Brigid is a driving force in educating people about play therapy and mental health – whether it’s by her organization of trainings in her community, her long time active membership and leadership on the IAPT board, her support of fellow play therapists or most importantly by her provision of play therapy to her clients.

Rookie of the Year – Michelle Mehrens

Michelle Mehrens is a newly graduated social worker who has eagerly embraced the philosophy and practice of play therapy.  She is steadfast in her desire to be the very best play therapist she can possibly be, and she is extraordinary in her dedication to play therapy and delightful in her practice of play therapy.  (She simply ROCKS with children!) Michelle is in her second year practicing as a play therapist, having graduated from her masters’ program at the beginning of the pandemic.  Because of the timing, she was thrown into learning play therapy AND into learning how to deliver play therapy through a telemental health format (and we all know that isn’t easy). She has shown remarkable resilience and determination to learn as much as she can possibly learn about play therapy and to deliver exemplary services to children, parents, and families. Michelle has devoted a great deal of time, energy, and money to learning more about play therapy by taking classes, getting supervision, and reading about play therapy.  She is working steadily toward attaining her RPT.  Michelle is committed to ethical and professional behavior and abides by the NASW Code of Ethics, APT’s standards of practice, and all other legal standards and requirements for social workers.

Mentorship Award – Debra Brockington, LMHC, MT-BC

Deb has been a Clinic Therapist at Tanager Place for 3 years, and during her time at Tanager Place, she has been an influential therapist for her clients, Tanager Place team member, and mentor for coworkers and interns alike. Deb demonstrates an eagerness to learn and grow in her role and shares that knowledge with others.

In her role at Tanager Place, Deb has shown care and a passion for working with children and families using play therapy. From her interactions in the waiting room to the play therapy sessions she holds, Deb is playful with her clients and their families. Deb speaks about her clients with respect and is often staffing cases in order to be the best practitioner she can be. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Deb has also adjusted her practice to meet the needs of her clients. She has adapted her play therapy skills to virtual platforms and seeks out trainings and consultation to best use her play therapy skills with clients. Deb consistently seeks to improve her practice as she has received additional training in using Theraplay®-informed practice, EMDR with children, sandtray, PCIT, and using Internal Family Systems work with her play therapy clients. Deb, somewhat uniquely, is also a Board Certified Music Therapist and regularly integrates music into play in the work she does. Deb maintains professionalism, displays organization skills, acts ethically, and exudes confidence in her work.

Deb has formally acted as a mentor and advocate for the advancement of the field of play therapy in many ways. Deb has served and supported many interns. She has had the opportunity to teach individual and family play therapy techniques and modalities with a range of interns and with her coworkers as well. Many of her coworkers seek out Deb to consult on play therapy cases. Deb has recently taken on a new role of Lead Clinician at Tanager Place, in which she has the opportunity to support her coworkers in their training and by providing additional times for consultation. Deb has presented at the Great Lakes and Mid-West Regions of the American Music Therapy Association about working with kids on the Autism Spectrum as well as serving individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder. Deb regularly participates in advocacy at the state level as well. I will never forget about the day that Tanager Place went to the Capitol to do

We provide services to children and families that inspire, empower and heal.

Friend of Play Therapy Award – Judge Linnea Nicol

Judge Nicol has served as a Guardian Ad Litem and now serves as a Family Court Judge in the Northeastern region of the state.  As a Guardian Ad Litem, she advocated significantly, not only for the wellbeing of children, but more so for permanency and attachment security.  As a judge, she has creatively addressed the needs of very young children by seeking out play therapy, helping to create and utilize what I now provide to many counties, A Parent Child Relational Assessment (using parts of TheraPlay) to offer court involved cases ways to assess the attachment needs, relational functioning and overall needs of children and their caregivers.  Judge Nicole has helped to make this funded by court approved funding, allowing it to be accessible and non diagnostic (again valuing the relational dynamic in a family (family systems) rather than problem focused. Judge Nicol is direct and confident in her understanding and the benefit of play therapy, play based assessments, and attachment needs when working with families.  She is a strong ally in the play therapy community.

2020 Award Winners

Play Therapist of the Year Award–Stephanie Eslick

Mentorship Award–Joella Gerber

Click here to see past award winners.