One word describes Sharon McKinley’s approach to life: Fun. After receiving a degree in physical education at WSU, she began her career in the special education department of the Winona Area Public Schools working with kids with learning disabilities. She found HCO about 10 years ago when she was looking for something to do during the summers. She began working with children at HCO’s 721 Resource Home. She now works at Saehler Drive supporting high schoolers and young adults, as well as adults living independently at Iverson Court. Sharon has two adult daughters, one of whom also works for HCO, and two grand-dogs. She recently lost her husband.
What does she like about the job at HCO? “It’s fun!” Sharon finds it fun and rewarding to see the individuals she works with learn and grow. She works directly with individuals teaching life skills, with the goal of being more successful in living independently.
Sharon and those she supports have been to some amazing places and have had a lot of fun at community events! “I like to get them going,” she said. It is as if she is a tour guide through life for her charges. “Let’s go to Whitewater to hike! Lark Toys to play mini-golf! Let’s go fishing at Lake Winona, or just go outside and play basketball or bags! Let’s barbecue or go bowling,” she says she often hears. Going out to watch the turtles lay eggs on Prairie Island is a favorite, saving a few of them from certain death on the road while they are at it. She’s taken people to Ashley for the Arts, standing for 8 hours in the front row to see a favorite band. There has been trips to the county fair, Valley Fair, the library, the Amish market, farmers market, Como Zoo, Minnehaha Falls, and shopping in La Crosse.
While she seems to enjoy every aspect of her work, she admits that she has a special fondness for teaching cooking. How do you teach someone to cook? “Step by step,” says Sharon, beginning with washing your hands. “Make it fun, laugh, and make things they like to eat.” And practice, practice, practice. “We’ve had a lot of burnt food,” she laughed. But that’s just another part of the learning process: watch the stove! At first, they are just helping you, and then over time, your roles reverse. Some individuals learn to love to cook. Sharon says it’s a joy to watch individuals gain confidence and discover that they can make their own meals and take care of themselves.
Along with teaching individuals to cook comes teaching them how to grocery shop, portion control, and how to store food for future meals. Cleaning up after themselves, personal hygiene, budgeting, how to ride the bus to work, and for some, even getting a driver’s license, are all things that Sharon helps people with. “Life is a game,” says Sharon, “and we all have to ride it out. For many of our individuals, Saehler is the next step in life, like going off to college. Preparing them takes time and a sense of humor.”
She helps individuals do their homework and is presently learning a lot about animal science and all the bones in a dog’s body as a result. “We are all learning,” she says with a laugh. She is also working on an herb garden, which was quite a challenge this year. “We need a plan,” she said. “Someone has to water those plants!” she laughs again.
While Sharon teaches all these skills to the individuals she works with, sometimes it’s to new staff, too! Sharon says working with college-aged staff keeps her feeling younger. She likes to teach them as well. Not every new college kid who comes to work at HCO has been schooled in how to work in the kitchen, do laundry, and clean house.
While she helps build tangible life skills, Sharon also believes that one of the greatest lessons people learn in this job is common sense. They should come in thinking about how they like to be treated and treat the individuals in their care the same. She points out that the job keeps people real. “It brings us back to the reality that not everyone has an easy time in life and makes us grow as people.”