Recreation Therapy Overview - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Recreation Therapy Overview

Bravehearts is just one of the many partnerships Milwaukee VA recreation therapists have to help our Veterans connect and heal. Keep reading for all the services we offer at the Milwaukee VA.

From art to music, building a canoe to riding a horse, or even something as simple as powering around the Spinal Cord Injury Center in a power wheelchair for Halloween trick-or-treating -- Recreation Therapy at the Milwaukee VA provides services to restore, remediate, and/or rehabilitate functional capabilities for Veterans with injuries, chronic illnesses and disabling conditions.

Recreation Therapy services embraces a philosophy of health promotion and disease prevention. This is facilitated by qualified clinicians designed to support each Veteran’s self-directed, self-determined and fully independent participation in their chosen life pursuits. Recreation Therapy services include assessment and treatment for physical, cognitive, emotional, psychosocial and leisure deficits. Services are provided based upon applying the best available research evidence, using expert clinical judgment in consideration with the Veteran’s individual goals, preferences and values.

Rec therapy book cover
Click image for PDF

Our Recreation Therapists work in a variety of departments throughout the medical center -- and at off-campus events -- to help build skills and heal from trauma, substance abuse, physical disability and so much more. We have a team of seven Recreation Therapists, three Recreation Therapist assistants, three music therapists and three art therapists provide services to Veterans in our Community Living Centers, Inpatient Mental Health unit, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Spinal Cord Injury Center, HUD-VASH homeless services, PRRC and the Mental Health Residential and Rehabilitation Treatment programs.  

Q: What is Recreation Therapy?
A: In 1945, the VA established the first "Recreation Service". The term "Recreation Therapy" was introduced in the 1950s with the inclusion of Recreation Therapy as an evidence-based treatment approach. The formative years of Recreation Therapy have seen the development of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral education programs as well as the establishment of professional organizations. Recreation Therapy is viewed as a means toward recovery.

Q: What are the national recreation therapy events and were can I find more information:
A: For more than 20 years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has sponsored four national rehabilitation special events for our nation’s Veterans. In 2008, two additional programs were added to this roster. Each year, VA sponsors or co-sponsors these programs for U.S. military Veterans served by VA medical facilities nationwide.
Each of these annual national programs promote the healing of both body and spirit as they motivate eligible Veterans to reach their full potential, improve their independence, achieve a healthier lifestyle, and enjoy a higher quality of life overall. Additionally, these events improves awareness of the therapeutic value of recreation, sports, or creative arts therapy in the lives of our nation’s Veterans. For more information about each of these outstanding programs, click on the links below:

Horses lead Vets to recovery

Vet with horseA roadside bomb in Iraq caused a traumatic brain injury for one Navy Veteran. But he said, "When I am up on Boone, nothing else matters. No PTSD, no problems." Boone, a therapeutic horse from Bravehearts is just one of many of the Milwaukee VA's recreational offerings. Learn More.

Homeless Vets find therapy in taking photos

Vet with photosVeterans in the homeless treatment program at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center participated in an outpatient therapy program that supplied them with small digital cameras and instruction in photography techniques. It's just one of the many Recreation Therapy offerings here. Meg Jones of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel covered their stories. Learn More.

Boat project helps keep Vets afloat

Vet with photosAs Rick Tafoya carefully steered the saber saw around the outline of what will eventually be part of the hull, the Marine Corps Veteran saw more than just a simple wooden boat. He is part of a Recreation Therapy project that connects Vets with events and organizations in the community. Learn More.

Meet the Recreation Therapy Team

Rene BurgoyneRené Burgoyne is an Army Veteran and has been a board-certified art therapist since 2004. She has worked at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center since 2015. She is also a licensed professional counselor who has worked closely with Veterans since 2006. In her role as an art therapist, she is responsible for facilitating group art therapy with Veterans from all eras. Some of the groups she facilitates focus on dual diagnosis while utilizing a recovery model and other groups are focused on trauma and general mental health. She brings her love of mindfulness and self-compassion to the group to help with emotion regulation and healing. Rene currently completed her certificate as a Level-OneTrauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapist which allows her the use of expressive therapies, mind-body approaches and resilience-building in trauma integration and recovery. For more on our art therapy programs, click here.

Al HoenkAlan Hoenk went to the University of Iowa where he earned his master’s degree in therapeutic recreation. He had an article published in Therapeutic Recreation Journal. Prior to coming to VA, he was the adjunctive therapy director at Old Orchard Hospital for eight years. Since starting to work at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center in July 2001, he has served the Veterans at Dom 123 going on 20 years, primarily in the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation program. He has strived to be flexible, adapting to the circumstances at any given time.

Makenzie KojisMakenzie Kojis is a board-certified music therapist and has been in practice since 2010 and at the Milwaukee VA since 2017. She serves the Veterans of the Milwaukee VA in Acute Mental Health including the Bridge IOP program and inpatient mental health. Makenzie integrates evidenced-based music therapy techniques with a dialectical behavior therapy model to assist Veterans experiencing emotional dysregulation as well as other symptoms of psychiatric diagnoses. Through the use of a variety of music therapy techniques such as lyric analysis, song writing and improvisation, Makenzie is able to assist a diverse group of patients to reach their individual mental health goals. She is a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more on our music therapy programs, click here.

Erinn KulbaErinn Kulba has been a recreation therapist with the Spinal Cord Injury team at the Milwaukee VA since 2019. She graduated with her master's in therapeutic recreation from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and has previous clinical experience in post-acute traumatic brain injury care, acute neuro rehabilitation and memory care. In addition to being a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, Erinn is a certified adaptive sports and recreation specialist and an Adult-Learn-To-Swim certified instructor. Erinn currently works with Veterans in the SCI Center to provide highly motivating, goal-oriented therapeutic interventions that are personalized to meet each Veteran’s recreation and leisure needs. It is Erinn’s goal to provide care that will improve a Veteran’s quality of life, increase functional independence within the community and assist with adjustment to a spinal cord injury. For more information on our adaptive sports programs, click here.

Cassandrea McCormickSandi McCormick was born and raised in the Milwaukee area. She attended the College of Saint Teresa, located in Winona, Minnesota, and graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in music therapy. Sandi’s primary instruments are violin, piano and voice. She interned at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex working with in-/out-patient adults and in-patient children and adolescents. Sandi began working as a creative arts music therapist at the Milwaukee VA in 1986. She has worked in many areas of the medical center treating Veterans for substance abuse, mental health challenges, stroke, dementia, physical rehabilitation, PTSD, COVID-19 recovery challenges, palliative care and more. It has been Sandi’s great honor to serve those who served our country. For more information on our music therapy programs, click here.

John RoseJohn Rose graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse earning his CTRS in therapeutic recreation. He has worked in the field for more than 26 years, serving a variety of special populations. He came to the Milwaukee VA in 2006, first working for the Community Living Center and transferring to the Dom 123 in 2015. By September 2021, he will have been proudly serving Veterans for 15 years at VA.


Karen SandbergKaren Sandberg has been a recreation assistant in the Rehabilitation, Extended and Community Care Division, since December 2020. She provides treatment and instruction to patients within the Vet’s Club and Community Living Center at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. She is responsible for developing specific activities and routines to maintain or improve patients’ general state of physical and/or mental health based on their therapeutic assessment. She works with Veterans on an individual basis in small or large groups, while leading activities suitable for their treatment goals.

Marisa StraubMarisa Straub is a registered art therapist and has served Veterans at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center for 30 years. She has worked in the Mental Health Domiciliary Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Programs using art therapy in a variety of programs throughout her career. She has trained numerous art therapy interns from local universities and has organized Veterans art competitions and shows at the Milwaukee VA for more than 20 years. She has also served as the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, Visual Arts Chair from 2009 to 2016 and cohosted the 2014 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Milwaukee. Marisa believes visual and symbolic expression can give voice to experience and empowers individual transformation. For more information on art therapy, click here.

Chun TsuiChun Hei "Johnny" Tsui is a recreation therapist working at the Community Living Center with the GEM and PM&R team since 2019. Johnny graduated from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where he earned his undergraduate in sports medicine and master’s in therapeutic recreation. Johnny is currently a licensed recreational therapist in the state of North Carolina and current Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist. Johnny works closely with the rest of rehab services therapists to provide interventions to increase functional leisure skills within the Veteran’s ability. Interventions are Veteran-centered to ensure maximum therapeutic benefits and assist with transition back home. Johnny also works with Veterans to educate on leisure skills such as researching recreation and leisure in the community of discharge as well as how to operate technologies that will benefit their day to day life. Johnny came from Goldsboro, North Carolina, home of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. He has been working with active-duty and Veterans previously on base. He also served people in North Carolina with developmental and intellectual disability at a state facility. He is proud to serve the ones who once served.

Francheska WallaceFrancheska Wallace is a proud Certified Recreational Therapist. Francheska graduated from the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin, where she earned her degree in occupational studies and therapeutic recreation. She has been a certified recreational therapist for four years. She is new to the Milwaukee VA's Spinal Cord Injury Unit. Francheska is honored to work for the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, as she is extremely appreciative of all Veterans. Francheska is proud to assist individuals become more independent while focusing on their quality of life. For more information on our adaptive sports, click here.

Christine WigginChristine Wiggin is a board-certified music therapist. She earned her bachelor's of music therapy from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2007 and completed her music therapy internship at Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Since then, Christine has had the pleasure of serving our geriatric population with medical fragilities in settings not limited to long-term care facilities, group homes, and rehab centers. She additionally carries advanced practice certification in Neurologic Music Therapy and extensive education in Hospice and Palliative Care based Music Therapy. For more information on our music therapy, click here.

Courtney ZellerCourtney Zeller is a proud alumna of the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation. She started her career working with individuals who struggle with severe and persistent mental illness. Courtney joined the Milwaukee VA in 2010 as a recreation therapist and currently works in the HUD VASH program. She dedicates her time to enriching the quality of lives for Veterans through meaningful and purposeful recreation. Courtney is passionate about helping Veterans connect to recreation resources and programs in the community.

Benefits and Positive Outcomes from Recreation Therapy Treatments

  • Development of leisure functioning and skills
  • Improvement of physical functioning including strength and endurance
  • Pain management
  • Weight management
  • Reduction in stress and anxiety
  • Development of positive coping strategies
  • Reduce social isolation
  • Improve social functioning
  • Promote constructive use of leisure time
  • Increase knowledge of community resources
  • Improve appropriate social functioning and interpersonal skills
  • Improve cognitive functioning
  • Improve independence in recreation

Recreation Therapy service code of ethical conduct

The health and safety of our patients, employees and community is our top priority. We put Veterans first regardless of their indvidiual backgrounds, beliefs, cultures and religion. Our service advocates or encourages Veterans to participate in the highest level of their care possible.

Contact Info


  • Milwaukee VA campus

Contact Number(s)

  • 414-384-2000 Ext. 41138

Hours of Operation

  • 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.