Posted on : 20 Oct 2022 | No Comments
In her five short years at KANDU, Erica Mortensen’s impact has been monumental for clients and KANDU staff alike. After moving from Colorado to Wisconsin, Erica joined KANDU as a program manager in community employment, while also helping in the daily living skills program. “I have a background in inclusive recreation and spent time in college volunteering for adaptive sports,” said Erica, going on to explain that she has always worked in the “people business,” so it was a natural fit to start working with clients at KANDU.
During her time in community employment and daily living skills, Erica and colleagues noticed a gap in services for people with disabilities: young adults aging out of school resources who were not old enough for other services offered by KANDU. Thus, Livin’ and Learnin’ was born. Erica developed the Livin’ and Learnin’ program from scratch and has been the head coordinator since its inception in 2020. The program is designed to assist individuals with developmental disabilities who are aged 14+ with navigating daily living activities outside of school and work like grocery shopping, cooking, gardening, and how to access public transit.
“As the newest client service at KANDU, there were definitely challenges along the way to get Livin’ and Learnin’ up and running and there have been changes since then, too; in February 2022 the program relocated from the Pontiac Convention Center where it had been operating since June 2021 to a house in Janesville, to better facilitate the kind of hands-on living skills the program teaches,” said Julie Smith, director of client services. Each client in the program establishes individual goals to develop or improve self-help, socialization, and adaptive skills to help them thrive within their community and live more independent lives. The program has blossomed since, and “KANDU has hired additional staff and increased the number of clients we serve in the program. All of this is possible due to Erica’s persistence and positive attitude,” said Julie.
“I love seeing Livin’ and Learnin’ clients grow and change into responsible young adults. Watching clients use the skills they’ve learned successfully out in the real world is very rewarding,” said Erica. One of the main ways the program prepares clients for real-world situations is by practicing out in the community. “I aim to foster clients’ specific interests by planning activities related to them, but I’m also focused on seeking out experiences they may have never had before. Many of the participants end up trying something new and learning more about what their surrounding community has to offer,” Erica explained, going on to say that the connections made with community members at local businesses and places like the library and the YMCA help the Livin’ & Learnin’ clients feel a sense of belonging and foster a more inclusive community.
One of the ways Livin’ and Learnin’ gets out in the community is by volunteering every Monday at The Salvation Army. “Erica and her team are a tremendous asset to The Salvation Army. They’ve been volunteering with us for over a year, and I love that I get to start the week off with this group. They are eager to help, ambitious to learn, and curious about what we have going on,” said Kimberly Renz of The Salvation Army. “Erica is an excellent leader for her clients, and you can see they truly respect her and appreciate her when you watch them interact. Erica’s patience with “her kids” is unique and she has a special talent for adapting tasks on the fly so each client can understand their project. I know they do a lot in the community every day, so having a leader that can ensure each experience is positive and rewarding for the kids is so important to their success,” Kimberly added.
In addition to exploring the greater Rock County area, Erica prioritizes creating client connections between departments and programs. “Day Services, ISP, and Livin’ and Learnin’ try to do programming together at least once a month to encourage intergenerational relationships,” said Erica, “There are so many different services that can work together within KANDU.” Since Livin’ and Learnin’ provides job skill training and daily living skills for young adults, the program works closely with KANDU’s community support program to help assist and support clients by providing them with a real-life representation of the skills needed for different jobs.
Erica sets an example about the importance of collaboration and communication between people, between programs, and between community organizations: by facilitating so many different relationship opportunities, Erica is opening up a whole world of new avenues for young clients, allowing them to pursue their potential. When asked what the toughest aspect of her job is, Erica answered, “It’s rewarding when clients succeed but bittersweet when they move on. But seeing the Livin’ and Learnin’ participants grow and change into responsible young adults is the most motivating and fulfilling feeling.”
If you’re inspired by the work Erica is doing and you’d like to support Livin’ and Learnin,’ the program is looking for donations like art supplies (especially a large roll of paper), a blender, a basketball hoop ball return, or any of the other items found on their wish list: https://www.kanduindustries.com/wishlist/