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Gifts in honor of retired physical therapy professor support WCU program, students

karen lunnen

Former faculty member Karen Lunnen speaks at a physical therapy program gathering.

By Bill Studenc

Three Western Carolina University physical therapy students will gain valuable hands-on experience this summer providing pro-bono treatment and services to residents of a community in the Central American nation of Honduras with limited access to health care.

The international experiential learning opportunity is made possible in part through contributions to WCU’s Department of Physical Therapy in appreciation of the impact of retired longtime faculty member Karen Y. Lunnen.

The students – Mari Dalman, Preston Ellington and Tommy Molina Reyes – received the scholarships during a departmental ceremony Friday, April 26.

In addition to those contributions, a former physical therapy practitioner, who wishes to remain anonymous, has made a series of gifts and pledges in honor of Lunnen and her vision for expanding physical therapy services across Western North Carolina.

The donor earlier this year created a charitable remainder unitrust that will launch the Karen Lunnen Vision for Physical Therapy Program Endowment. Also called a CRUT, a charitable remainder unitrust is an estate planning instrument that generates income during a donor’s life, with the remainder of the funds in the trust distributed to a charitable cause.

Upon distribution of the remainder of the trust, an amount currently estimated at $37,000, the Karen Lunnen Vision for Physical Therapy Program Endowment will provide experiential learning and professional development support for physical therapy students, including international travel.

It also will provide financial support for students in comprehensive service-learning physical therapy projects and for the student-run interprofessional pro bono clinic called the Mountain Area Pro Bono Health Services.

The anonymous donor also recently made gifts and pledges totaling $7,500 over the next five years to the Karen Lunnen Vision for Physical Therapy Program Fund, providing immediate support to the endowed fund’s priorities. In addition, other friends of Lunnen have made contributions to the fund as memorial gifts in honor of her late sister, Elizabeth “Bonnie” Haag, who died Nov. 14, 2023, in her hometown of Moorestown, New Jersey.

“I am so very grateful to these individuals for their friendship, ingenuity, generosity and compassion. My sister would have been delighted, as am I, with their gift,” Lunnen said in announcing the scholarship recipients during the departmental ceremony.


Karen Lunnen announces (from left) Mari Dalman, Preston Ellington and Tommy Molina Reyes as recipients of a scholarship established in her honor.

Students who received the inaugural awards from the Lunnen fund said the financial assistance is helping them be able to travel to Honduras for the medical mission trip in May.

For Stamford, Connecticut, resident Tommy Molina Reyes, a second-year doctoral student in the physical therapy program, receiving the scholarship is a bit of a personal full-circle moment. “It will allow me to participate in a faculty-led trip to Honduras to provide pro bono physical therapy to the rural town of Taulabé, an experience that originally drew me to Western Carolina’s physical therapy program,” said Molina Reyes, whose family hails from Honduras.

“When I was interviewing for DPT programs, Western’s interview touched on their Honduras experience. And it resonated with me given my family’s connection to the country,” he said. “I am a first-generation American, and my family is from Honduras. So, traveling back to my family’s home country to give back means the world to me.”

Preston Ellington, a second-year doctoral student in the program, said the financial assistance from the scholarship will help pay for groceries, rent and other bills and will also assist in offsetting the cost of traveling to Honduras this summer for the pro bono clinic.

“I am very grateful for the Karen Lunnen scholarship,” said Ellington, a native of Hendersonville. “The cost of living has skyrocketed since I graduated high school in 2016, making it very difficult for students to avoid accumulating significant debt. The funding components of scholarships are as instrumental for attaining higher education as the inspiring mission behind them.”

Asheville resident Mari Dalman agreed. “This scholarship has allowed me to feel even more confident in my decision to go on this trip to Honduras to serve an underserved community,” said Dalman, a second-year doctoral student. “We will be able to provide physical therapy to those in need in a place where physical therapy does not exist currently.”

Lunnen retired as department head and associate professor of physical therapy at the close of the 2016 academic year after 22 years as a full-time faculty member at WCU. Prior to joining WCU, she was a working physical therapist who, starting in 1986, served as a member of the Physical Therapy Advisory Committee, which worked to plan and establish a physical therapy program at WCU.

At the time, the far western counties of North Carolina lacked a sufficient number of physical therapists, and WCU’s program was designed to help meet that need. Among other contributions, Lunnen helped secure funding for the program, develop preliminary relationships with clinical education sites and design the original curriculum of study that was submitted to the University of North Carolina System Board of Governors for approval.

The physical therapy program at WCU began in 1996, with a doctoral program getting underway in 2013. Lunnen started official employment at WCU in January 1995 as acting department head before transitioning into the role of academic coordinator of clinical education. She received tenure in 2001, served as acting department head from 2001 to 2003 and moved into that role permanently in 2003.

Since the program’s inception, it has graduated 711 students with master’s and doctoral degrees in physical therapy. Of those graduates, more than 65% practice in the state of North Carolina, and nearly one-third have stayed to practice in WNC.

According to statistics provided by the North Carolina Area Healthcare Education Center (AHEC) and the Mountain Area Health Center (MAHEC), since the first physical therapists graduated from WCU in 1998, the number of physical therapists in the 16 westernmost North Carolina counties has increased from 297 to 729.

David Hudson, current department head and distinguished professor of physical therapy at WCU, said the scholarship fund in honor of his predecessor is an appropriate way to simultaneously honor a regional groundbreaker in the profession and provide assistance to deserving students.

“Karen Lunnen is a person with great passion for caring for people who are in need,” Hudson said. “The Karen Lunnen Vision for Physical Therapy Program Fund will support a sustainable scholarship program for students that share her passion. The three students receiving this year’s award have demonstrated a strong commitment to serving people in MAPHealth, our pro bono health clinic, which operates out of the Health and Human Science Building and the Biltmore Park Instructional site.”

The contributions to the Karen Lunnen Vision for Physical Therapy Program Fund come as part of WCU’s “Fill the Western Sky” comprehensive fundraising campaign, an effort to raise $75 million for the university’s academic, student engagement and athletics programs. For more information or to make a contribution to the campaign, visit, call 828-227-7124 or email

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