An Agency of Change

As Blue River Services, Inc. held its All-Staff In-Service on September 28, most of the agency’s 383 employees who gathered at Lincoln Hills Christian Church realized an apogee of history, hope and hospitality that has changed the societal landscape for people of all backgrounds. Since its humble beginning in 1959, Blue River Services has been changing the outlook and outcomes for children with disabilities, developing and maintaining healthy lifestyles for adults with disabilities and improving the lives of all people in 33 Indiana counties through programs as diverse as the population they serve.

With the fitting theme, “Agents of Change,” the mass training articulated the agency’s magnitude and impact through video, testimony and staff accolades.

“It’s not until we get everyone together in one room that the magnitude of what Blue River Services does becomes evident,” said Daniel J. Lowe, President and CEO. “You do incredible work in changing the lives of individuals and families we serve, but the changes you make go far beyond the obvious.” “Societal changes are not as obvious and immediate as individual changes,” he continued, “but they are just as real.” “Add together all those changes you are helping to make and your work is improving the collective quality of life in Southern Indiana.”


One man whose story was an inspiring portrayal of the power of change was keynote speaker Don Bartlette, Ph.D., author of the autobiography Macaroni at Midnight, a title possibly inspired by a memory of his mother serving him a bowl of macaroni late one night and him proving he could eat it before the condemning eyes of his father.

Now in his 70s, the Native American Chippewa who as a child was told he would never learn to talk travels the world as a motivational speaker. “Thanks to one agent of change,” he said.

You could feel the cold North Dakota air lingering in the one-room shack where Bartlette describes being born with a severe cleft palate and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Through his words, the bitterness bridged an abusive, alcoholic father who shunned him, to doctors, teachers and community members who labeled him worthless and cast him aside, and kids who brutally bullied him.

The cruelty of his childhood continued until one woman defied social taboos and helped him become the successful man he is today. From her, he learned to speak, chew food, and of modern utilities, such as running water and electricity. She fed him, made sure he received a proper education and helped him learn daily. When he graduated college, he became a teacher and school superintendent. But for more than 20 years, he has told his life story, inspiring people to treat others with compassion, equality and respect.

His story is a concrete example of why Blue River Services, and in particular, its employees, are icons of hope to the 23,000 plus people they serve in Indiana each year.

Closer to home in Harrison County, Crystal Hess, a former felon, drug addict and single mother, shared how, with a collaborative effort across four Blue River programs, she became a nurturing mother, wife, homeowner and entrepreneur.

As she candidly shed light on the dark side of motherhood -- a world of debilitating depression, uncertainty and isolation -- she credited WIC, Healthy Families and First Steps for her newfound success. Through WIC, Hess received healthy foods, counseling, health screenings and referrals, which led her to Healthy Families. The ongoing services she received included screening for post-partum depression, a grave condition affecting Hess, along with 600,000 other women in the United States annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control. With referrals to community resources and doctors, and developmental in-home assessments, Hess and her son also began receiving services through First Steps after Healthy Families staff identified a developmental delay. Her son received in-home speech and language therapy through First Steps, and at 3-years-old, he also will be eligible to participate in an Exceptional Learners program in preschool at North Harrison Elementary, a division of Blue River’s Children’s Services Department.

Another story of success was that of longtime consumer Donald Kost. Surrounded by his adoptive family member, his boss at Big O Tires and Community Resources Department Director Tammy Seitz, Kost also was celebrated for his accomplishments. He moved into the McGrain Group Home in 1996, and with vocational and employment services, began working the same year at Corydon Blue River Industries sheltered workshop and Big O Tires in Corydon. Now living on his own, Kost still works both jobs four days a week, but also maintains a healthy, safe living environment with minimal assistance, and has become more social and self-sufficient.

Another highlight of the day was the premiere of “Who We Are,” a video showcasing Blue River Services’ vibrant community roots and its various departments and services. As an agency with 13 departments and at least 22 programs and services spread out across 33 counties, there are many who, even after years of employment, are not familiar with everything BRS offers. The video helped define those services and will be a tremendous resource for new employees.

In addition to educating, another purpose of the event is to recognize staff contributions. Presented by Lowe, the Service Awards recognized Blue River personnel who have been with the agency five years or more.

“As of today, said Lowe, “there are 67 staff who have been here five to nine years, there are 40 who have been here 10 to 14 years, there are 26 who have been here 15 to 19 years, and there are 28 who have been here for over 20 years … I think that’s pretty amazing.”

After completing several creative “missions” that encouraged colleagues to seek and share one another’s agency knowledge, it was finally time for the coveted Donna J. Gettelfinger Spirit of Blue River Awards.

An homage to the President’s late administrative assistant, who was “a very special person,” the spirit of Blue River, Lowe said, is something she definitely had. “It’s one of those things I’m not exactly sure how to define it… but I know it when I see it. It’s a feeling, a commitment, and it shows itself in a variety of ways.”

Selected from a record number of 33 nominees, this year’s Spirit of Blue River Award winners were Johnny Collins for the Day Services Program, Tonia Hedge in Children and Family Services category, and Cynthia Porter in Residential Services.

Wrapping up the day, Lowe said he thought this year’s event was “the best yet” -- music to the ears of the seven-member staff committee who planned and coordinated the entire day down to the very last decoration and door prize.

“Just think of all the time, imagination and effort that went in to putting this together,” he said as he applauded those responsible for “pulling this off today.”

It might have seemed like just another day of inevitable change, challenges and triumphs at the Louisville Metro Area’s 14th largest non-profit, but it was one that left an indelible mark on all who participated.

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