Changing lives: Fifty years of advocating
By Eileen Persike
There used to be a time in Rhinelander, indeed throughout the country, when a person with a disability had limited choices in life; for education, socializing or even where to live. That was before 1969, when a grassroots group of Rhinelander area parents and community members helped Father Brendan Kunda found the program that is now Headwaters, Inc. Called the Oneida County Day Care Program, it provided an option for families who wanted their loved ones with disabilities to receive services close to home, rather than in a state institution. The program operated out of the Congregational Church in Rhinelander and was the beginning of movement that, 50 years later, continues to advocate for the rights of the disabled.
“One consistent part of our history is that we have worked to integrate people,” said Headwaters, Inc. Director Jennifer Felty. “Year after year after year we work to help the folks that we support become part of the regular fabric of the community.”
What has changed, and changes constantly, is how Headwaters supports its clients.
“No other business has changed so much and worked so hard to stay on top of all the changes,” said Katharine Garrison, an employee who, like most of the staff, has filled just about every role at Headwaters at one point or another. “It’s all the time for us. It really is true, what we did last week is not what we’re doing this week,” she added with a chuckle.
Funds were raised and the day care program was moved to a newly constructed building on Timber Drive in 1973 and services were expanded to include Vilas and Forest counties. Programming in the early years included independent living skills, which was needed at a time when clients were coming from institutions, group homes and parental homes.
“Now that’s no longer our peoples’ journey, so we provide support in social connections, job connections,” said Corie Dart. “Once that’s the norm, what the next part of our journey?”
Production is a big part of Headwaters’ history. Along with independent living skills, clients gained work experience on site by stuffing and sewing pet toys for Drs. Foster and Smith, packaging products for U.S. Stick and work for other local companies that had contracts with Headwaters. Clients cut, delivered and stacked firewood and for years operated a popular car detailing service. Through the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), clients maintained DNR boat landings and wayside rest areas in Oneida, Forest and Vilas counties.
The last 20 years or so, however, the workshop model has slowly given way to one of community-based services. The shift is due in large part to a 1999 Supreme Court ruling called the Olmstead Decision, which said states cannot bar people with disabilities from living independently; that institutionalization was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal government, which funds the services Headwaters provides through Medicaid, said it will eventually stop paying for these congregate services.
Another transition, a new challenge for Headwaters in order to keep up with the times.
“We’re in a stage now where the changes are more rapid,” Felty said. “We’re still driven by families, advocates, clientele, grass roots organizations that push for change. So we anticipate and develop services to meet those needs.”
Not waiting for the government’s 2021 deadline, the Headwaters team is already working to transition people out of the workshop and into jobs in the community, when possible.
“One of my motivations has been that if we can’t do that anymore, we have to figure out what we can do so that [clients] have continuity … and it’s not a crisis when the deadline hits,” Felty, who has been with Headwaters since 2013, said. She came to Rhinelander from a similar agency in Ashland, where workshops had closed in the 1980s.
“If you go to Ashland, you will see people with disabilities everywhere in regular parts of the community,” Felty said. “There is less stigma – people are the part of the regular fabric of the community and that is what’s happened. Not that it’s totally gone, but it is definitely a lot different than other communities.”
To enhance community integration, Headwaters has been involved in some statewide projects and has been the first to develop programs that other agencies want to emulate, such as community-based day services.
“It’s meant to be a wrap-around service to people’s community employment,” Felty explained. “It’s a model where we’re supporting people’s growth and even if they want to grow in their jobs, there are things we can do in community-based day services that helps support career growth, helps them maintain their relationships and friendships.”
One of the perhaps unexpected ways people with disabilities are integrating with the Rhinelander community and building relationships is through volunteering. They can be found at the food pantry, Frederick Place, petting the cats at the Human Society, preparing a meal for the Rhinelander Fire Department, making hospice quilts and picking up trash along a highway.
“It’s important for them to feel they are giving back and puts them in the community in a different way,” Felty said. “It kind of flips the narrative. When you see someone with a disability doing the same thing you are – volunteering – it makes you think of that person differently.”
Attending college has a similar affect. In 2010 Headwaters became involved in a pilot program in the state with Jump! Start at Nicolet College. The Jump! Start program allows adult learners with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to continue their education after high school. Area high schools partner with Headwaters and Nicolet College to provide the students with the college experience, job preparation with the added benefit of socializing with friends.
“The biggest and most important change I’ve seen is that 30 years ago our people didn’t graduate from high school; now they’re going to college,” said Julie Deaton. “From grade school education to college education – that’s huge.”
It’s a program with results that cannot be overstated.
“We have worked ourselves out of job in some cases,” Felty and Garrison said while recalling the story of a woman who worked in production at Headwaters, went through Jump! Start, then college in Madison and is now living independently in Wausau. “She has a completely different life.”
With the help of area employers, educators and other partners, Headwaters continues to change lives. Lives of people with disabilities that have been challenged to be who they want to be and the lives of community members with whom they interact.
“Based on our experience, the employers’ attitudes change over time and one they get to know the people they are supporting and working with, the disability falls away,” Felty said.
The thinking around community employment has changed over the years. “We see more possibilities,” Felty said. Between Headwaters and the Ashland services, 72 people with disabilities are employed in the community.
The goals for Headwaters in 2019 have changed from its beginnings in 1969. From having day care services instead of institutionalized care for the disabled to seeing people with disabilities as members of the community is a momentous shift.
“We want everyone to have a job in the community,” Felty said. “And also able to see their friends at these integrated community activities, that’s really going to be the future and that’s what were working toward.”
“Fullest life possible – in any and every way. Fully included citizens,” Garrison added.
For more information, visit headwatersinc.org.