Cheryl Gardner-Ghionzoli has held many positions at Home and Community Options throughout her 32 years here. Originally hired in the Community Living Services program as a Program Assistant, Cheryl moved to the position of Primary Counselor upon graduating from college in 1987. Her myriad of positions with the agency include the Assistant to the Executive Director, Residential Primary Counselor, Residential Coordinator, and she is currently the Training Coordinator. While Cheryl has worn many hats for the agency, the one she has enjoyed most is her role as an advocate.
Cheryl’s first experience as an advocate preceded her time at HCO, back when she was a child and her younger brother had a seizure. He made it through the event, but afterwards Cheryl saw people avoiding him because of his seizures, so she took a stand. “I did what I now know as advocating, and I stood by him as a kid and still to this day. It just hit me the wrong way, and ever since then, advocacy has been the path that I have been on.” Wanting to help others, Cheryl went to school for Therapeutic Recreation with a focus on people with disabilities, which is what brought her to the organization.
One of Cheryl’s main tasks when she began with Community Living Services was to help with the Drop-in Center, which provided a space for people the organization served to hang out and attend programs. “People would come to pay bills, if they needed some spending money, or if they had mail they didn’t understand. It was just a very big, open, relaxed area, which provided us with the ability to do some different group things.” Though this program is no longer active today due to the offices being relocated to provide more confidentiality for the people they served, during its existence, the Drop-in Center was a wonderful asset for the community.
Aside from her work in the Drop-in Center, one of Cheryl’s most influential programs has been her work with the Stout Conference and the creation of the Eagle Bluff Retreat. Cheryl had heard about the Stout Self-Advocacy Conference during her time at CLS and helped get a group together to try it out. The three-day conference was at Stout University in Wisconsin, which allowed for self-advocates to experience dorm life, as well as to utilize different resources at the university. Cheryl recalls a cooking program that she attended with self-advocates where one of the buildings had an area for people going into cooking. “They actually had kitchens for all of us to use,” she said, notably impressed. It was clear that the self-advocates were gaining valuable skills and experiences, so when the Stout Program ended a few years later, people quickly began co-planning a conference with Able Incorporated, and the Eagle Bluff Retreat was born.
Similar to the Stout Conference, Eagle Bluff centered on programs during the day providing opportunities for people to try different things that they didn’t have access to in Winona. At first people were nervous about the switch, but after the first year, they loved it. “It was a hit! So we continued to plan it, and this event ran for 13 years, the last one being held in 2018.” The success of the program has been assisted by the different programs that the Eagle Bluff Center helps put on. There are nature programs, including bird and reptile shows where they have live animals for people to see, craft classes, archery, rock climbing, ropes courses, and one of the group favorites, Bingo. In recent years, HCO has also added games such as Survivor obstacles, life size board games, Dancing with the Stars, and American Idol Karaoke. There was even a firefighter who volunteered his time one year to bring his suit to the retreat so that self-advocates could experience the weight of the equipment and learn more about what is involved with being a firefighter. Cheryl has helped plan every Eagle Bluff event, and is most proud of the relationships it helps to build between self-advocates. “In 2019, we have to go in a different direction as the Eagle Bluff Learning Center is not available. It will be hard to transition to a new event, but just like when Stout ended, we will be creative and continue on.”
As the Training Coordinator for Home and Community Options, Cheryl most enjoys getting to know the staff. “I have known almost everyone since they started working,” she jokes, but she also misses the relationships she made with self-advocates in her previous positions. She still takes the time to volunteer as an advocate outside of work, but, she says, “I didn’t want to leave my people. If there is one downside to what I am doing now, it is the lack of individual contact. There is a part of that I still miss.” To help remember the people she has served, Cheryl likes to relate stories of her own experiences with self-advocates. “It is a professional role,” she tells her trainees, “but it gets personal.”
Finding dedicated staff that will remain at HCO is Cheryl’s biggest obstacle these days. She sees so many staff who want to see progress, but there is a lack of patience for the process to get to that point. “It takes a certain type of person,” Cheryl adds, “It doesn’t take a saint, but you have to have the right mindset.” To help prepare people for working at Home and Community Options, Cheryl emphasizes the importance of the agency’s mission: to provide support and residential services to people with developmental disabilities in order to enable individuals to live as full members of their communities. “If your mantra, your drive, whatever it is you want to do with your life doesn’t align with this mission,” Cheryl tells her trainees, “you are going to find it hard to meet HCO’s expectations.” This mission and the philosophy of HCO, in Cheryl’s opinion, is what makes the community so close. From the top down she sees the mission in action, and it is this common goal that has made the agency a big part of her family.
Another aspect of training that Cheryl likes to emphasize is the importance of person-centered care. Cheryl believes that Home and Community Options is one of the most person-centered organizations around, but she acknowledges that “balancing the dignity of risk” can be a complicated, yet crucial, aspect of providing care. To be truly person-centered, in Cheryl’s eyes, is less about making sure self-advocates are always making the “right choice,” and more about making sure individuals are given the opportunity to see all sides and make their own choice. Staff should always do what they can to keep people safe, but that can’t be done 100% of the time. That will result in failure sometimes, but that helps ensure that self-advocates are living the life they want. “Some choices are value based,” Cheryl says, “and we have to be careful that we aren’t imposing our values on someone else.”
One of Cheryl’s greatest motivations is her drive to ensure that people are being seen as equal. “The people that we are supporting aren’t any different. They really aren’t. They have different needs; we all have different needs. They have different characteristics; we all have different characteristics. It is that perception that because their needs are different or their characteristics are different, that they somehow aren’t the same as everyone else and that is not the case,” she says. “We all do things a little differently. Some people are right handed; some people are left handed. People are people.” What matters most is that HCO can help assuage the difficulties that come with the differences that self-advocates have.
It is apparent when talking with Cheryl that self-advocates have been a huge part of her life. “One of the gentlemen that I had worked with for years, and knew for years, was just the character of Winona.” She recalls how everyone knew him. “He was always the social butterfly!” Another self-advocate Cheryl spoke of was a woman who had been institutionalized and only drank water from a water fountain. When there was no longer a water fountain in the house, she drank from the faucet, so Cheryl and her staff set out to teach her how to drink from cups. “It took probably a year and a half, maybe almost two years, for her to get the knack down drinking out of cups, and it opened up the world to her. Now she will drink milk and juice. Before, she had only ever had water because that is what comes out of the faucet.” She described another moment with this individual where the staff tried to provide her with snack options by showing her pictures of her snack choices, but she wouldn’t pick any. One day, she threw the pictures on the ground, went to the kitchen, and grabbed the snack that she wanted. “I bet she thought she had to eat that card,” Cheryl remembers telling her coworker later. It is moments like this one, an experience that made her look more intently on the way things are presented, that have impacted Cheryl.
When asked about why she has remained at HCO for all of these years, Cheryl responded, “I love this agency. I love what I am doing. It’s not a field you work in for the money, it’s a field you work in because you love what you do. I have learned so much at this job. It has changed my life in a good way, a very positive way, and helped me see potential. It’s in the little things as much as the big things.” She is glad to have gotten to know her coworkers and self-advocates so well, and she is proud that Winona has been a community of allies for the people that HCO serves.