Meet Mishelle Rudzinski, M.A., CCC-SLP
In graduate school, I had the opportunity to enroll in an advanced course in Pediatric Feeding. As speech pathologists, we often receive ample training in dysphagia management for adults, but children are a whole different ball game. Anatomy, physiology, feeding behaviors, and developmental trajectories are incredibly different from the adult patient. The course opened my eyes to the complexity of pediatric feeding practices as well as the significant gaps in research that we, as a field, need to work to fill. Since that course, I have been very interested in pediatric feeding practice, especially as I consider the future directions of my career.
One rainy day, I found myself googling pediatric feeding clinics, just out of curiosity. In this rabbit hole of a google search, I somehow landed on SPOON Foundation and was incredibly inspired.
Mishelle is the co-founder and Executive Director of SPOON Foundation, a global nonprofit which is fighting pediatric malnutrition by providing tools and educating caregivers in critical nutrition and feeding practices at orphanages across the globe. SPOON works with partners to equip caregivers with the knowledge and tools they need to ensure adequate nutrition and safe feeding, especially for children with disabilities.
Mishelle founded SPOON with Cindy Kaplan, an entrepreneur with a background in psychology and marketing, shortly after they adopted their children from Kazakhstan. Both children suffered from severe, life-threatening malnutrition, which brought to light the profound need for an organization such as SPOON. SPOON’s mission is rooted in partnership with international and local partners to deliver solutions that are highly individualized and locally contextualized to meet unique needs. SPOON provides education and tools to improve feeding techniques, better identify children at-risk through nutrition screening, and optimize diet and supplementation.
Her path: Mishelle has a background as a pediatric SLP specializing in early communication and feeding of children with severe disabilities. From 1999-2009, she worked at Emmanuel Children’s Hospital in Portland, OR where she developed and ran an AAC clinic serving nonverbal children throughout the pacific northwest. In this role, she realized there were a lack of resources for children who had difficulty accessing the computer due to physical and vision impairments. So, she created SwitchClimber.com, an online service to support that population. Mishelle co-founded SPOON in 2007 and has served in a variety of roles within the organization, including Program Director, Director of Feeding and Disability Programming, and Deputy Director.
“The belief that children with disabilities have value and should benefit from the basic human rights of education, communication, families, dignity, and participation has been the basis for everything I’ve done as an SLP, in my work at SPOON, and as a parent.” – Mishelle Rudzinski, M.A., CCC-SLP
- What advice would you give to a new graduate who is about to start their clinical fellowship (CF)?
Sit down with your supervisor and let her/him know that you want to learn as much as possible from them. Ask for consistent, clear feedback on a regular basis. And then listen openly. This is your chance to really hone your skills.
- What is one belief, habit or routine that has significantly impacted your life?
The belief that children with disabilities have value and should benefit from the basic human rights of education, communication, families, dignity, and participation has been the basis for everything I’ve done as an SLP, in my work at SPOON, and as a parent.
- Where did you complete your CF? How does the career path you’ve traveled differ from the path you imagined as a new grad?
I completed my CF in Salem, OR at what was then called the Mid-Valley Children’s Guild, a pediatric outpatient clinic. I entered the field of speech language pathology due to my interest in assistive technology and never in my wildest dreams imagined that my career would eventually lead to co-founding a global nongovernmental organization focused on the health of children living outside of family care, most of whom have disabilities.
- What book do you most frequently recommend? Is there a book that has greatly impacted how you think?
When I was 7 and 8 years old, I was obsessed with Helen Keller and read everything about her and by her that I could find. Years later I watched the British documentary 28 Up in which the premise is that you can largely tell how a child will end up in life by their personality and circumstances at age seven. Looking back, I think that was true for me. That short-term obsession must have shaped my career path even though I wasn’t aware of it.
- What is your favorite failure?
Several years ago, SPOON received a grant to improve the nutrition and feeding of children living in orphanages in a central Asian country. We started out by doing an assessment on the nutritional status of the children and devastatingly found that 91% of them had one or more indicator of malnutrition—the worst rate we had seen to date. We met with the government, who had given us permission to do the work, and carefully shared the results with them. Soon after, the government halted the project and would not allow us to continue. We were crushed. We so wanted to help the children, many with disabilities, and none with families to advocate for them, but understood that the government did not want the negative results known to the world. A couple of years later I was in a meeting in London with a representative of an organization who also worked in that country. He casually mentioned that all of the orphanages were being shut down in that country and turned into community support centers for the foster and biological families who would now be caring for the children from the orphanages. One of the critical reasons for the positive change was the nutritional data SPOON had uncovered. So what had felt like a failure when we couldn’t run our programs turned into one of our biggest success stories!
- What areas in the field of speech-language pathology do you see the most opportunity for growth?
I don’t necessarily have my finger on the pulse of the field as a whole so I don’t feel qualified to answer this question. I do feel that as SLPs who interact with a wide variety of people in need we have an obligation to advocate for them and their right to high quality services. In doing so, we can help ensure that there are areas within the field with opportunities to grow.
- What are bad recommendations you hear in the field or in your area of expertise?
Right now, most of my work is in low resource settings overseas where there is no training on feeding for any children, let alone children with disabilities. Care for children in orphanages is based on the group. What is done for one is done for all. Children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy are routinely fed lying down flat on their backs, often with bottles that have large holes cut out so porridge can flow through more quickly. Babies are fed without being held, bottles propped up by blankets. Toddlers are often not allowed to feed themselves—it’s too slow and messy—so food is shoveled in assembly line-style by an adult.
- What was a notable turning point or shift in your career? How did this impact your professional journey?
Without a doubt, the most notable turning point in my career happened when I adopted my daughter who was five years old and diagnosed with cerebral palsy and possible muscular dystrophy. After adoption it became apparent that she did not have those diagnoses at all. She was unable to walk and was the size of an 18 month old due to malnutrition.
When I watched her recover her first year after adoption—growing 8 inches and learning to walk, run, speak, and play —I was stunned that it just didn’t take much to completely turn her life around. I knew there were thousands, or millions, of children like her who needed to have the same chance she had. So SPOON was born and I gradually shifted from working in a hospital to working full time for an international NGO. Now my day is filled with activities that I never imagined when I started in the field of speech-language pathology but I wouldn’t trade it for the world!