Written by Hannah Petersen, 2020 HCO Scholar

My first experience with Home and Community Options was auditioning for their annual summer musical in 2018. I am close friends with someone who grew up watching and participating in them – since we had been in other shows together, he had me come along to audition for ‘The Little Mermaid.’ As I was sitting at HCO’s downtown office waiting to audition, a staff member approached me and struck up a conversation. I would later get to know this staff as being Suzanne Horstman, the Executive Director of HCO. She asked me what I was studying at Winona State, and when I replied with social work, she immediately encouraged me to apply for the agency. She quickly informed me of a program that Social Work students employed by HCO can partake in, and with that in mind, sent me in to my audition.

I soon started working at HCO and quickly got involved in HCO’s Northam Scholar Program. The Northam Scholar Program presents a special opportunity for a paid practicum and an amazing learning experience to Social Work students at WSU. This program was developed not only to help HCO retain long-term staff, but also for the Social Work students to receive an immersive and extensive education that will benefit them greatly in their future career(s). I began this program my sophomore year of college, before I was even accepted into the social work program. It started with the completion of my field experience hours at my first program, one of HCO’s Resource Homes. After my acceptance into the Social Work program, I began meeting with the Northam Scholar liaison— Social Work Professor, Jay Palmer. Each semester I was given reading assignments for each class I was taking, which connected what I was learning in class to the training and work I was doing at HCO. These readings were a supplement to what I had been learning, both in my HCO trainings as a Direct Support Professional (DSP) and as a social work student. What I had been learning in trainings and classes was kept in two separate parts of my brain. These readings and meetings with Professor Palmer allowed me to fuse the knowledge I was gaining and apply it to become an even better DSP and social worker.

This semester, I completed the Northam Scholar program by being an administrative intern at HCO’s Central Office. I worked directly underneath Cindi Wiczek, a Program Director and Licensed Social Worker for the agency. I primarily expected to be an administrative intern, learning by following my field instructor around. What I experienced this semester far exceeded what I initially thought. I was able to work on my communication skills by working with various teams throughout the agency, and I was also given many opportunities to learn about policies and exactly what it takes to run a non-profit organization. I attended Director’s meetings, division meetings, various committee meetings, and had other opportunities to further my education as a social worker and a DSP. I expanded my knowledge of different policies that affected the agency and received the opportunity to speak to State Legislators that represent Winona at ARRM’s Virtual Day at the Capitol.

My favorite part of this internship was working with the Leadership Team. HCO provides a familial atmosphere that permeates throughout the organization, which allows for great communication and teamwork. Because this was my final semester at WSU, I also completed my senior project at the agency. I took on a project that the last Scholar was working on and implemented it in programs agency-wide. The idea was for an “All About Me” sheet to be created to help new staff and staff in the open shift pool learn how to best support the individuals they were working with through person-centered supports. I loved being able to communicate with all the Directors and other full-time staff at HCO to implement this project and to have been able to experience being a part of the agency in a different way.

This internship was an amazing opportunity to participate in a wonderful program that has provided me with the chance to expand my education and my knowledge of what it takes to work as a social worker and a Direct Support Professional. All of this would not have been possible without the generous support from the Northam family, who have funded this internship for myself and three other Northam Scholars throughout the years. With their help, I was able to have an amazing experience that I will carry with me in my future with the agency and as a social worker. I would like to thank both the Northam family and everyone at HCO who have provided me with a semester full of learning opportunities and great, fun experiences.

I know that because I had the chance to be a Northam Scholar, I have become a better social worker and a better direct support professional, and I cannot wait to continue working with HCO.

We would like to congratulate Hannah on her recent promotion to Primary Counselor of one of HCO’s Residential Programs!