It is funny that Dona Jean Gatwood, director of community inclusion programs at Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled (LADD, Inc.) told me one of the perks of her job is that it gives her the opportunity to laugh a lot, as, it is because of people like her that I’d have to say that is definitely a job perk for me as well (I do public relations for LADD). I can always count on being uplifted and welcomed. And, especially if DJ is around, I know there will be a lot of smiles.
LADD is a 41 year old Cincinnati-based nonprofit organization that is guided by the belief that every person has ability and value, and that there is great strength in diversity. It works to propel the inclusion and success of nearly 500 adults in Hamilton County who have developmental disabilities through housing and employment options, life skills training, and advocacy leadership. I really think of LADD as a pioneer in this work, always forging new ideas for building a more inclusive community where everyone can contribute and belong.
In her job, DJ oversees many facets of LADD’s work including supportive housing, adult foster care, a unique Community Connections that engages adults with developmental disabilities in decision making and community involvement, and more.
She has many long days but I think it is pretty obvious that her time spent is more than a job, it is her passion. It is no surprise that her career there spans 19 years and prior to LADD, she worked for another nonprofit agency for 16 years.
“The work just kind of found me,” she said.
It all began when the son of her mother’s friend mentioned he needed help at a group home. DJ and her parents drove to Cincinnati, she interviewed, was hired as an assistant and moved in.
If you are one of the fortunate ones to have DJ a part of your life, you know she isn’t one to take relationships lightly. Her ear is always open to listening. Her heart is always full with love. Her arms are always available for hugs. And her door is always open for others to walk in.
It has just been a part of her upbringing since growing up in a rural farming community of Circleville, Ohio. Her parents were the extra parents for any kid who didn’t have a good home. There was an extra plate at dinner for an extra family or family member. DJ even read in her great grandmother’s diary about that family doing the same thing. And it was that way on DJ’s dad’s side too. “I’m blessed that way,” DJ told me. “You learn your values early on.”
And so, of course, DJ called her parents from work one day to tell them she would be bringing the Gena, the youngest girl living in the group home where she worked, back for a visit. When funding shifted, that girl moved into DJ’s home as a foster for twenty years. At 34 years old now, Gena is living in an apartment with support from LADD, and in every way except biological, she is DJ’s grown daughter.
“I’ve learned so much through Gena. She has taught me about resilience and curiosity, and to never put a limit on what you can do. Gena never holds a grudge and she is so passionate about having a vibrant life,” DJ said.
Hmm, I have a feeling DJ has taught Gena those same lessons.
When was the last time you were under great pressure to complete deadlines and assignments? How often do you have nights where you lay in bed awake thinking about what is on your plate? When was the last time you took a vacation and really checked out from emails and social media? How often is it that you focus on being present in the moment with the people and environment that surrounds you, that you awake without a schedule and let yourself live in the moment?
I am here to tell you, turning off from work and daily pressures, and turning on to a restful vacation is not only great for creating lasting memories that bring a smile to your face, it also is great for stress reduction, better sleep, and improved productivity.
It was a cold night in January, the end of a very long word day, when I cuddled up under a blanket, took out my laptop and began my search for the prettiest beaches in the United States; and the best places to stay. When you are on the planning team for one of the region’s largest film festivals, you have many hectic days filled with communicating sometimes with dozens of people in one afternoon, making to do lists and lists of lists, planning, developing ideas, writing messaging, responding on social media.
Two months after our last film was shown, I boarded a plane for Destin, Florida. It was to be my first vacation in a very long time, traveling by myself to a place I had never before been, staying with hosts who I had only met via a few emails back and forth through AirBnB.
I have read that vacations benefit us with stress reduction, better sleep and improved productivity but I didn’t need the research to draw my own conclusions.
For seven days, I, as someone who checks my emails and social media accounts way too often, actually for the most part turned everything off. My days began with a morning walk down the resort road that meandered around meticulously cared for fairways, tennis courts and swimming pools, across bridges and walkways that traversed large bodies of water nestled in and surrounded by high rise buildings and condominiums before crossing the street to where one of the United States most beautiful beaches awaited. Come night time, I visited one of two of the region’s warf villages filled with pubs, specialty shops, entertainment, restaurants and music. On one evening I boarded a packed boat with music and drinks, going out into the bay to seek out dolphins and have a prime seat for viewing the gorgeous sunset. And another evening found me having dinner with one of my hosts on a beachfront restaurant as the sound of the waves was our ambiance music. Always, my day ended with long conversations and laughter shared between three people who were no longer strangers connected through a website.
If you have never experienced a Pan Handle beach, let me tell you, the Miramar Beach of Destin is nothing short of paradise. Emerald green water so clear that you can stand and look down at your feet and see tiny minnows swimming by caresses miles of pure white, very fine sand that are lined by homes and large condominium complexes and filled with beach umbrellas. In the morning, when the water is calmest, dolphins can be spotted in the distance.
I slept soundly every night I was there and awoke rested and ready to begin another 18 hours of having no agenda except living in the moment, taking in surroundings, laughing, talking, reading, and appreciating life.
As my vacation was coming to a close, there was a side of me that wanted to stay right where I was suspended in this sense of inner peace. Then I checked my email and saw that I would be coming back to work on an event that was about creating important, far reaching change to strengthen our city’s liveability for everyone. I also had received numerous messages about potential new dog training.
I was ready to put the vacation behind and get back to work. I have a feeling I’ll be planning another vacation soon.
Mary Ronan, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, and John and Eileen Barrett and Chris Bochenek, were recently honored by the Assistance League of Greater Cincinnati at its annual awards presentation for their commitments to giving back.
Mary was recognized with a National Operation School Bell Award. Operation School Bell is an Assistance League program that provides school uniforms annually to more than 2,500 children in poverty in 35 public and parochial schools in greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky.
Some of the ways Mary has supported Operation School Bell and the Assistance League include: regularly assisting as a volunteer during Operation School Bell uniform distribution; developing a protocol enabling Cincinnati Public Schools to pay for school buses used to transport students to Assistance League distribution sites, which freed the nonprofit organization’s chapter funds, enabling an increase in the number of children served; and arranging for Operation School Bell coordinators to regularly attend staff development meetings with the resource coordinators from each school, strengthening the AL role and program impact on the children participating in Operation School Bell.
John and Eileen Barrett
The Barretts are long-time community leaders and have received many awards for their philanthropic work.
John is chairman, president and chief executive officer at Western & Southern Financial Group. He serves on the board of directors for Western & Southern Financial Group and Cintas Corporation and is a member and former chairman of the Cincinnati Business Committee. He serves on the executive committee of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) and is active with REDI Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati and its foundation.
Eileen serves or has served on the board of trustees for Central Clinic Foundation; Barrett Cancer Center; Children’s Protective Service-Families Forward; The Children’s Home of Cincinnati; Cincinnati Country Day School; Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden; and The Springer School. She is co-chair for Ride Cincinnati; former United Way Campaign co-chair; and helped raise more than $1 million in 2011 at the Queen City Ball Gala benefitting the Barrett Cancer Center and the Lindner Center of Hope.
Christine A. Bochenek
Vice president and senior program officer for human services with the Haile/USBank Foundation, Christine has served 28 years with U.S. Bank and has been with the foundation since it opened in 2007. She serves on the board of trustees for the Women’s Crisis Center and the Hamilton County Job & Family Services Family Fund; Scholar House of Northern Kentucky; Homeless to Homes Plan; and Seton High School’s Advancement Committee.
The Assistance League of Greater Cincinnati is made up of volunteers who run programs dedicated to aid women and children in crisis, serving Hamilton, Butler, Warren and Clermont counties in Ohio, and Kenton, Boone, Campbell, Grant and Mason Counties in northern Kentucky.
Children living in poverty, or in need of tutoring or mentoring, are not relegated to certain neighborhoods. They are all around us. They could be our neighbors or someone living down the street. They could be a classmate to your child. Let’s face it, on any given day, any one of us could find ourselves in a situation of needing assistance of some kind.
I learned about a program in my neighborhood this weekend when I went to my local Kroger store. There in the parking lot was a group of youth and adults, including a Blue Ash police officer with a van that had its back end open. It was stuffed with bags of food, and I gave them one more.
They were collecting food as part of a Sycamore Township nonprofit organization called Operation Give Back that provides programs and services specifically to neighborhood students whose families are having financial hardship.
OGB’s signature program is its After-School Tutoring and Mentoring Program, working closely with the Sycamore Community Schools to identify students in 2nd – 8th grades who would benefit from academic support or assistance with other skills. Approximately 35 students per year are transported by Sycamore District Buses for 2½ hours of after-school tutoring, three days per week.
Additionally, OGB provides has a School Supply Drive and supplies over 350 students with a backpack, along with items from their specific school supply lists. The organization also has a food pantry, summer camps, health awareness programs, and a holiday store.
Super cool for 5 year old Varen Noell Rogers!
Months back I remember her mother, Stacy Sill, telling us her daughter was in the running for the cover model of Cincinnati Family Magazine…and now Varen’s beautiful face is gracing thousands of issues around the region.
I asked Stacy to share some insight on Cincinnati’s newest superstar. This is what Stacy said:
When I asked Varen what she thought about being on the cover of Cincinnati Parent Magazine, she said it was very exciting and it was awesome that her friends and teachers got to see it. She’s a little performer and really enjoyed the photo shoot!
It’s fitting that she was born on the first day of summer, because her personality is like a ray of sunshine that can light up a room! She’s a typical five year-old in many ways… spunky, opinionated, giggly, and a complete ball of energy. She loves to have play dates, go to the park, watch movies, and play games. She absolutely loves books and is an enthusiastic emerging reader. When I asked her to describe herself, she said “well, I love to sing and dance and do theater, make new friends, and I really like to make people laugh. Oh, and I love unicorns and rainbows too.” That summed it up pretty nicely!
Varen is currently involved in gymnastics, art classes, and ice hockey. She put on her first pair of skates at 18 months old! She also loves taking glass art classes at Brazee Street Studios in Oakley. We’ve really tried to get her into a little bit of everything and then follow her lead in terms of her interests.
From a very early age, Varen has had a penchant for the performing arts. At age 3, she was the only preschooler in her elementary school to audition for the talent show. She decided, all on her own, to sing My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music (then her favorite movie)… a capella! She pulled it off in typical Varen fashion, full of fun and charm! This past weekend, she played a Munchkin in the New Richmond High School production of The Wizard of Oz. She was so enthusiastic and confident that the director gave her a line to perform, and she was thrilled! She nailed it. 🙂
She asked me to include things she does not like: stinky socks, macaroni and cheese, and vegetables. Now you know.
This week, she says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up because it looks really fun and she knows some good teachers.