Mary Jansen is a people person. In her office in the basement of Home and Community Options, she is surrounded by pictures of individuals in the HCO community. “When I look at these pictures,” she says, taking a moment to admire the faces of people she has cared for over the years, “I could tell you stories about each one.”
Mary is going into her 44th year at the agency, having started after a friend approached her in the spring of 1976. She recently graduated with a degree in Psychology and Sociology and later became a licensed Social Worker. She was initially hired as a Primary Counselor and became a Program Coordinator in 1981 when the agency opened a second home. Mary oversaw the new program entirely and played an integral role in its development. She handled the hiring and training of staff, partnered with work/day programs, supported individuals, and helped families with transitioning their loved ones back into the community.
“I worked with the county and with our Executive Director going to regional state hospitals to find people who were originally from Winona or had family here,” Mary recalls. She felt like she was able to play a big part in helping individuals have a better quality of life and live closer to family. One family in particular was very concerned about their daughter moving back to the community. They had many “What if’s”. They were worried for her safety and the level of supervision she would be receiving. Mary was able to quell those fears, and once their daughter moved here, the family was able to enjoy having her close by. They also saw the positive changes in her as she became more involved in the community.
As the years progressed, Mary worked alongside state and county representatives to provide support that was more person-centered and individualized. Programs designed to support twelve were able to move people to live in homes of four. Teams worked together to find homes and match individuals by looking at personal interests and who people wanted to live with. Support became more personalized and allowed for flexibility in services that larger homes did not.
Mary was later promoted to Director of Residential Services alongside Helen Onnen, who oversaw in-home services. These two women oversaw all the services that the agency provided. Looking back, especially at opening up their first home, Mary couldn’t find the words to describe how powerful that was. “You can’t imagine going through all of that. We had nothing and made it work.” It was definitely easier to get to know all the employees when the agency was smaller! HCO now employs over 300 staff across four service divisions, one of which Mary continues to oversee. “It is exciting to see how the agency has grown over the years and how many individuals and families we have been able to provide support to.”
Mary feels humbled by how fortunate she has been over the years to come to work each day doing something she enjoys. “HCO is family,” she added with a smile, “I can only hope that I have had as much of an impact on the individuals I have worked with over the years that they have had on me. They have taught me a lot about myself.” People at the agency feel the same way about Mary, some of whom came to Home and Community Options at Mary’s suggestion. When she recommends people to work here, it’s because Mary often recognizes that they are caring, compassionate and respectful of others differences. “You can teach the responsibilities of a job, but it is hard to teach someone compassion. It is about the people we support, not us.”
This outlook on life threads through any conversation you have with Mary when talking about Home and Community Options. She has come to love numerous people she has worked with as friends and family. She believes that it is the people that have kept her at the agency for so long: from individuals who call Mary daily to chat and catch up, to her coworkers. “We are always there for each other,” she said. The family that she has found at Home and Community Options has not only supported Mary, but has taught her just as much. Some of the lessons she noted were to empathize with the people around her, give back and treat other people with kindness, respect, and be fair. “Everybody has different learning styles in how they process things and tasks can be learned differently with the same outcome” Mary said. Whether they are an individual that the agency helps support or a friend from the community, Mary strives to empower those around her to continue to grow and learn.
Even when things don’t go exactly how Mary thought they would, she feels it always worked out. She couldn’t help but beam while she shared some memories. What is remembered most aren’t moments of stress, but are the fond memories with individuals.
When changes in how services are provided have occurred (which often times have been challenging), HCO has always embraced it and moved on. Requirements for providing services are constantly changing, terminology has expanded, funding has been tough and the need to have legislator involvement is higher than it has ever been before. Despite challenges like these, providing quality services continues to be the focus for HCO.
As someone who has been a part of the agency since it began, Mary is proud of the services that she has been able to help provide and that employees are treated respectfully. HCO has continued to live by its mission and core values. “Everyone deserves to have the same life experiences and be treated with respect. It doesn’t matter if a person has a disability or not, they should be given opportunities to explore what is important to them and be a part of something. We should be focusing on teaching skills of independence and empowering people to be the best person they can be”.