When Cindi Wiczek started her first shift at Home and Community Options in 1988, she was nervous. At 23 years old, she was used to managing a hectic schedule: in addition to being a full-time student and mother of a 3-year-old, she was also working at Hardees part-time to put herself through school. Finding a position in her field of Social Work was an exciting, but intimidating, step forward. She remembers thinking, “I don’t know if I can do this.” After four years as a Primary Counselor, she was promoted to Coordinator where she supervised three programs. Seven years later, she was made the Program Director of Division III, a position she has now held for 19 years.
Cindi originally found out about the open position at Home and Community Options from her mother, who was a night attendant with the agency. Her daughter is now the Communication Coordinator for the agency. “Up until last year, we had three generations working here,” she marveled. “I think it says a lot about HCO.” Though she feels blessed to be able to work with her family, she says they have workloads different enough that they don’t see each other much and still spend time catching up on the weekends.
Cindi has worked on deinstitutionalizing people and handling multiple crisis placements in her years with HCO, and many of these memories stand out. “I had the opportunity sometimes to move people who had been in institutions for almost their entire lives. At the time I started, they were in the middle of the process. They were moving out the people who they thought could quite easily live in the community and didn’t need that level of care. The state was pushing more and more to get everybody out of institutions. I felt like that was a tremendous responsibility,” she said. Transitioning people out of institutions and into small family homes was an enormous undertaking. “We learned that a lot of the things we were experiencing were a direct result of institutionalization. When a beverage was placed in front of someone who came from an institutional setting, we would sometimes see them drink it in one swallow. Eventually, we realized that this was to prevent someone else from drinking it. Trying to help them get comfortable in smaller settings – these were people that I felt I was able to make a difference in their lives.”
“The times when I have had the most stress is when I have felt like we failed someone,” Cindi shared. Teams can often assist individuals previously in crisis, or with high behaviors to remain stable for years. Variables like mental illness, medication changes, or overly stressful situations can sometimes destabilize them. “We’ve been able to create a living situation to help transition them back to the community and hopefully be successful. Sometimes we can help to re-stabilize them, but there are times that they need to be placed outside of their home, or we have had to serve notice because our staff are getting severely hurt. Those are the situations that everyone in the agency has a hard time with,” she comments. “You feel like you let that person down.” Because of that, when staff are able to successfully support someone who has re-stabilized after going into crisis, it is always cause for celebration.
Cindi’s dedication and passion has only served to fuel her more in her work over the past 30 years, and to this day one of her favorite jobs is opening new programs. She has opened five programs, including the Saehler Drive Resource Home. There was a lot of damage when the home was flooded in 2007, but Cindi remembers feeling blessed by all the help the agency received from the community. Staff from other programs, neighbors, and even family members of staff rallied to help. “We started rerouting staff; we didn’t have computers, our bookwork, a site, or vehicles. We started patching in staff to provide more services in family homes and HCO offices.” The agency was able to simultaneously muck out everything that was flooded, move to a temporary location, and resume support for the 55 individuals and staff working in the program. “One of the things that we are really proud of is that services were disrupted for less than 24 hours. The teamwork was amazing,” she said.
At one point, state officials attempted to end the program, but the agency advocated for keeping it open. “We weren’t going to accept the discontinuation of integral services for the community. We were licensed, we were here, and we knew what we were doing,” she said. “We were the first agency to develop that type of service in the state, providing a place to bring people to while they still lived in their family home.” Home and Community Options petitioned the help of families, testified before the state legislature, and drafted a bill that passed, enabling the program to remain open. “Between opening the program, almost losing it to the flood, and almost losing it to the state… it’s kind of one of my babies that I don’t ever want to lose.”
Cindi enjoys opening programs because she likes being involved from a project’s inception to its completion. “Once you have started matching people up – families are being introduced to each other and clientele are meeting each other. They begin spending time together to get to know each other, and that is really inspiring to watch. Also, gaining the family’s trust –a lot of individuals are leaving home for the first time – parents want to be very involved.” She loves being able to help foster these lasting relationships.
Cindi loves the work she does because every day is different. While this can be stressful, it is more often refreshing. Every time she thinks she has seen it all, something new happens and she thinks, “I’ve never seen that one before. That is brilliant, who came up with that one?” The variety keeps her on her toes and makes the job much more engaging.
The close-knit, family atmosphere of HCO is something that Cindi knows she couldn’t find anywhere else. Many of the individuals Cindi began supporting early on in her career were close to her in age, so she grew up alongside them. “Now I feel like I am growing old with them,” she says. “With consumers and with coworkers, after 30 years, you have been through so much together. I’ve lost people and helped plan their funeral with their family; coworkers were pallbearers at their funeral. I have helped individuals who have lost their own family members, and I’ve attended their family member’s funeral with them. One of my daughters is in the office over there, Ashly,” Cindi pointed, “She was probably three or four when I started here. Ashly was actually a cast member in the first HCO play that we ever produced, and now she works on the play each year. HCO individuals came to my house after my second daughter, Delaney, was born,” she laughed. “They were excited to meet her.”
“We are the first ones with the coffee pot when a loved one dies. We have lost children of our own that we have helped each other through. We have supported each other through fellow coworkers’ deaths –people we have worked with for ten or fifteen years who have died of cancer. When I lost my brother, all the directors attended his celebration of life in the middle of a snow storm. We have been to each other’s weddings; we have been there through break ups; now I am watching my coworkers with their grandbabies! Some of us spend more time with and know each other better than our own families do.”
This sense of community and family within the agency, for Cindi, is its foundation. She believes that Home and Community Options’ success is because of the hardworking and loving people that choose to work there, and after 30 years, Cindi can’t imagine being anywhere else. “It is all kind of hand-in-hand. I don’t know what I am going to do when I retire, but I think it is going to be hard. When you feel like you are a part of the story, it is hard to leave. I feel like I need to stay to see how the story ends. I would wonder so much how different people are doing. Most of the people here – it is part of our culture – we are family to each other.”