Stephen Deter initially started his college studies as an Elementary Ed major, but soon changed to Sales and Marketing. While he was in college, someone mentioned that HCO was a good place to pick up a part-time job, so Stephen applied. He worked part-time for five years and found he liked it so much that he has now been with the agency for another five-and-a-half years as a Primary Counselor at the Saehler Drive Program. The warmth Stephen feels from the people at Saehler indicates to him that he is making a difference through his work and making an impact on the lives of the individuals there.
On a typical day at the Saehler house, Stephen is either doing office work or meeting with individuals. Saehler is not a residential house, but does host individuals on occasional overnights, for fun or respite. The number of overnights an individual will have is determined at the annual assessment meeting, and most of the individuals look forward to these “away from home” stays with excitement. Most overnights are held on Friday and Saturday nights, but when school is not in session, overnights can be on any day that fits into an individual’s schedule.
The ages of the individuals at Saehler range from 14 to 74. Despite the age differences, Stephen feels that there is a remarkable feeling of camaraderie. There are usually 12 – 15 individuals at the house each day, depending on the time of year. Saehler is an active, bustling place that caters to the needs of the individuals. Everyone works on skills to help them in the community, and are regularly asked the “emergency” questions: name, address, and phone number (in case they get lost), and what to do in case of the unexpected emergency, a fire for instance.
In addition to working with the individuals in his caseload and communicating with their parents or guardians, Stephen also does some bookkeeping and tries to help out with what maintenance he can at the house. Some of his individuals meet with him on a daily basis, or every other day. Once a year they hold a team assessment, where he meets with parents, job coach, teachers, a behavioral specialist, and county case managers. This team’s goals are to track the individual’s progress and form a contract, or plan, for the coming year. He must also conduct a six-month review with each individual.
Stephen enjoys working with the individuals at Saehler because he is able to actually see the changes in the individuals’ development. “It’s rewarding to watch an individual – whose behavior was so bad when he first came to Saehler that he was unable to be out in the community – gradually grow to be able to join his friends and be included in community activities that will further his development,” he says.
Staff work with individuals on cooking plans, letting individuals choose what they would like to cook, and helping them plan and execute the meal. Many of the skills that staff and individuals work on are in anticipation of a future move, either to a residence or independent living. Stephen makes sure that all individuals receive assistance with personal hygiene, get some exercise, and have a chance to get errands done. Stephen encourages individuals to speak up and let staff know what they need so they can help coordinate their activities. Sometimes, individuals want one-on-one time to talk things through. Other times, they are excited to participate in group activities: games, day trips, and shorter outings in the community. Staff is available to help them with their academic work, as well.
In the summers, Saehler individuals are really on the go. They take trips to the Aquatic Center, Steamboat Days, and other places where they can go as a big group.
Stephen tells new staff that not only is working at HCO a way to give back to the community, it is also great training for any future endeavors. A skill that staff must learn is to “stay cool under fire,” says Stephen. If an individual comes to the program all worked up, it is imperative to remain calm, which helps the individual relax and have a better experience while they are there.
There are plenty of opportunities for different experiences in the community, and it is a chance to get you out of your comfort zone and learn to speak for people who often can’t speak for themselves. “Every day is different,” he says, “and when people hear that you work at HCO, they know that you have had the best training and that you have learned lessons you will learn nowhere else, making you a valuable prospect.”
There are certainly challenges, says Stephen, but HCO provides training, support, and teaching tools to meet those challenges. When Stephen first started, an individual became so frustrated he threw a fork at the wall. But Stephen kept at it, and soon the individual learned to be more vocal, and learned that expressing his needs verbally would enable others to understand better and be able to help.
The Saehler house also suffered devastating damage during the floods of August 2007. The offices in the lower level were inundated. Stephen says everything was gone, including the paperwork kept there. The program was temporarily moved to much smaller quarters behind the Lamberton-Huff house near downtown Winona. When the waters receded, the clean-up began, and Saehler once again could house staff and individuals. “The miraculous thing,” says Stephen, “is the flood waters ravaged the house on a Saturday night when no one was there for an overnight. That never happens!” Saehler got the miracle it needed and no one was put at risk.
Despite it all, Stephen says the joys always outweigh the challenges. A warm greeting when individuals arrive, seeing them become more and more comfortable, open up, be honest about their needs, and watching them do things that other people thought they couldn’t do are rewards in themselves. Realizing that individuals know that at Saehler they will have a good time and find friendly support is a joy, too.
“It is bittersweet,” Stephen says, “when individuals leave the program to go on in life. But it is rewarding to know that staff has used their considerable skills to make it possible for those individuals to have a rewarding future.”
Stephen’s older brother, Mark, died when Stephen was only 12 years old. Mark, seemingly a hale and hearty 22-year-old, was a student at St. Cloud State when he collapsed and died of a malfunction of the heart. Stephen’s parents, Bob and Marj, chose to honor Mark’s memory by setting up a family foundation that donates to nonprofits in his name. Mark loved animals and kids, so HCO is one of the recipients of the foundation. “A recent donation to HCO,” says Stephen, “will be used for the deck at Saehler in Mark’s memory.” The need is there and it isn’t going to go away. “Staffing needs are incredibly high,” Stephen says, “and donating benefits a lot of people.” He encourages other people to consider donating to HCO as well.