Now Or Never

How this Edmonton therapist is using play to help kids heal

Jon Jon Rivero turned his love of play into a trauma-informed care practice, helping kids overcome challenges with play therapy. But his approach started as a kid, growing up with a sick parent and a love of Bruce Lee.

Jon Jon Rivero took his love of play and turned it into trauma-informed therapy

Jon Jon Rivero stands in front of a mural at Qi Creative Inc., featuring the activities and characters they use to help their kid clientele. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)
Jon Jon Rivero is an occupational therapist and the founder of Qi Creative, a rehabilitation medicine practice in Edmonton that uses play like music, martial arts, crafts and beatboxing to be their best selves. 7:46

Jon Jon Rivero remembers writing a song with a client.

She was eight years old and had lived in multiple foster homes before returning to her birth mother. The family was having a hard time.

"I could tell that the child was just wanting validation," said the Edmonton occupational therapist. "To be like, 'Are you wanting me to stay for good now? Because you gave me up before.'" 

Together, they worked to turn a poem she wrote into a song, addressing her feelings and fears.

It's something Rivero gets to do every day at Qi Creative Inc., his rehabilitation medicine and trauma-informed care practice.

"Play is one of the most important and often understated modalities to learning," he said. "There are so many therapeutic benefits."

Clients at Qi take part in all sorts of activities, including rock climbing, to build problem solving and social skills. (Submitted by Jon Jon Rivero)

Offering safety through play

For more than a decade Rivero and his wife, Paula, have led a team of therapists and behavioural specialists in creative forms of therapy, using play as a basis to help "kids achieve their awesomeness."

Today, he says, 60 per cent of Qi Creative's clients are children with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. 

Increasingly, there are also children and families involved in Alberta Children's Services, often located in rural parts of the province, he said. 

Working closely with children and families who have experienced trauma, Rivero uses play like video games, dance and music to help them cope and overcome behavioural challenges.

"If we can honour their play, that's where they're feeling the most safe," he said. "The goal is just to allow them to feel safe."

Bruce Lee therapy

Rivero started his career as an occupational therapist at the Centre for Autism Services Alberta, using martial arts, music and dance to teach different skills.

But his passion for medicine started young. 

When he was two years old, his father was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour and underwent an operation.

"My mom would teach my brother and I to engage in activities that gave him meaning," he recalled. "My dad was a martial artist, he was a musician, a dancer, a singer, and also was a doctor."

Rivero credits his career path to his parents, including his father Jose, who battled a brain tumor throughout his childhood. (Submitted by Jon Jon Rivero)

Every day she would put Rivero and his brother, Joel, in the living room where their father slept on a cot. They'd put on Julio Iglesias, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder records or spend the day watching Bruce Lee movies, encouraging the boys to mimic his flying kicks.

"My dad eventually became more able-bodied again," he said. "He was able to feel like a dad."

Sixteen years later at their father's funeral, Rivero's mother revealed that he was only predicted to live for a year or two after his operation. Rivero believes the way they continued to engage with him and play gave them those extra years of life.

This realization changed the way he thought about a career in health care.

"I've been an [occupational therapist] my whole life, so it just made sense."

The power of play

Rivero brings his love of breakdancing, beatboxing and taekwondo into his work — connecting and bringing together kids for martial arts training and talent shows.

In the last few years they've experimented with videos and books, using characters and stories to create online resources and starting programs in the Philippines, where Rivero's parents were born. 

Rivero points to faces on the 'Qi Wall of Awesome,' a collection of past clients and the people who have inspired his work. (Clare Bonnyman/CBC)

He's built a life around using play to help others, and keeps track of former clients on the "Qi Wall of Awesome," a collection of photographs, cards and signed letters that decorate a wall in their building.

It reminds Rivero of the power of play. 

"It's an opportunity for kids to be kids."