2016-02-01 / Features

At the Community's Service

One Centre County Agency Supports Those Who Need It Most
Robyn Passante

There are two ways to view a wheelchair: You can see it as a sign of restriction and disability or as a tool of empowerment and independence. While both may be correct, the staff of Strawberry Fields, Inc. would no doubt focus on the latter. After all, their entire collection of services is based on the same premise.

“It’s not just about us taking care of people,” says Cindy Pasquinelli, CEO of the Centre County agency that provides comprehensive services for people with intellectual and physical disabilities as well as those with mental illness. “It’s about teaching them to take care of themselves and be as independent as possible.”

Celebrating its 44th year, Strawberry Fields has grown from a day service begun by a handful of familiesCindy PasquinelliCindy Pasquinelli who had older children with intellectual disabilities to an organization that serves more than 650 individuals and families per year, focusing on three distinct populations in need: adults with intellectual (and sometimes physical) disabilities, individuals with mental illness and children under 3 with developmental delays.

“We’re meeting the needs of people that might not otherwise be met,” says Pasquinelli, who has been the organization’s CEO for 30 years. With its $6 million budget, the agency operates 13 group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities, 11 of which it owns and two it rents, along with three residences for adults with mental illness. Strawberry Fields also has a staff of more than 200 full- and part-time employees and a fleet of 15 vehicles, one for each home, which give residents the freedom to get involved in the community and come and go — with staff assistance — as they please.

“Every home has a program manager who supervises the staff, works with the families and coordinates the activities of the residents,” Pasquinelli says of the group homes, which house no more than three people each. “When they come in to our homes, with the family’s input and blessing we become the life coordinator, like a second mom.”

Volunteers smile after a day of yard work at one of Strawberry Fields’ group homes during a United Way Day of Caring.Volunteers smile after a day of yard work at one of Strawberry Fields’ group homes during a United Way Day of Caring.

The group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities are almost like forever homes
— we become the family for a lot of these folks.”
 —Cindy Pasquinelli, CEO

That extended family mentality has helped people like Lisa Calderwood take ownership of a house that, for all intents and purposes, really does belong to its residents.

Calderwood has lived in a Strawberry Fields group home for 12 years but has been receiving its services for decades longer. The bubbly 52-year-old was born with physical and intellectual disabilities, due in part to spina bifida, and has spent her life striving for independence despite being bound to a wheelchair and needing occasional nursing care and mental health assistance as well.

Lisa CalderwoodLisa Calderwood“I’ve been with Strawberry Fields throughout my whole life,” she says. “My parents were worried I couldn’t function on my own. My mom’s like, ‘I don’t know about this, Lisa.’ I said, ‘Mom, I’m not little anymore. You have to give me my wings.’”

Wings and a safe place to land are exactly what these group homes give to their residents. Calderwood and her two roommates live in a modest three-bedroom, single-story ranch; the open floor plan allows her to maneuver her wheelchair from the living room to the kitchen and back to her bedroom, where she keeps her keyboard, her own TV, a whole lot of clothes and a special lift system that helps her move from the chair to the bed.

“We take a lot of pride in making sure everybody has as much input into their bedroom and into the house as possible,” Pasquinelli says. “As a parent myself, that has guided me through all these years. Our mission is about focusing on empowering them to be as independent as possible. So they deserve a bedroom with the same choices that our children do.”

Besides giving them their own space, Strawberry Fields staff is there to assist the residents with meals — though Calderwood prides herself on cooking — driving them to activities and generally assisting in everyday life as needs arise. But they stay as hands-off as possible.

“Sometimes I have trouble making decisions,” Calderwood says. “So I’ll grab [a staff member] and say, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘I’m not sure how to do this.’ And they’re there to help me figure it out, but not take over. They’ve never taken over. Never.”

The ages and abilities range widely among residents of the different homes, and the older the agency becomes, the more its residents’ needs have expanded, Pasquinelli says.

“We started a lot of homes in the late ’80s and ’90s as the state was closing its institutions. And those are the people we’ve ended up providing care to until the end of their lives. In the last few years we’ve actually provided hospice,” Pasquinelli says. “The group homes for adults with intellectual disabilities are almost like forever homes. We become the family for a lot of these folks.”

Longtime direct care professional Tammy Spayd, center, visits with residents Maryanne Kadash and Lisa Hubler. Longtime direct care professional Tammy Spayd, center, visits with residents Maryanne Kadash and Lisa Hubler.
Strawberry Fields becomes like a second family in a slightly different way when a mental illness crisis hits.

“One of the things we really try to do is to work with the individual on accepting the diagnosis: ‘How do I deal with being bipolar? How do I deal with being schizophrenic?’” says Pasquinelli, whose first position with the agency was the director of mental health services. It’s an area of interest she says was sparked at age 16 when she saw the treatment of her sister-in-law, who’d been hospitalized for postpartum depression.

“To witness what had happened, and to see that state institution for the first time as a young person, that guided me toward wanting to make a difference in the way we deal with people who have mental health issues,” she says. Though society has come a long way toward understanding mental illness, the stigma attached to it still makes it difficult for everyone involved.

“When you think you have a child who is somewhat ‘normal,’ and they grow up and then all of a sudden in the teenage years, that’s when a lot of mental illnesses begin to erupt — schizophrenia, depression — and they don’t have the support,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons agencies like Strawberry Fields started and have grown, because there’s a huge need.”

Though the three residences designated for those with mental illnesses are for adults age 21 and older, the agency serves teens and young adults through its case management program, which works with the teen’s family doctor, therapist and school to coordinate services and ensure the individual is getting the care that’s needed.

“Our staff is there making sure they’re in treatment, making sure they’re taking their meds,” she says, “because what we do know is that people really can recover. It’s a recovery-oriented process.”

In the 1990s, Strawberry Fields branched out once again, adding comprehensive Early Intervention services to children from birth to 3 years old who are experiencing developmental delays. It was a decision based both on the needs of the county’s residents, and the needs of the healthcare-based business.

“As an agency we’re financially stronger because each of our departments are funded by different [state] funders. So based on the government, one segment of funding can be down, another can be up, so it’s really helped us financially to balance,” says Pasquinelli. “You can’t shuffle the money from department to department, but I can do everything cheaper and more efficiently because our administrative costs are split in thirds. We don’t have a bigger budget, but because we’re able to spread our fixed costs over more cost centers, we are able to stay cutting edge.”

Sean Kramer helps with his daughter’s therapy session.Sean Kramer helps with his daughter’s therapy session.Sean Kramer doesn’t know about all that cutting-edge stuff, but he does know that his 2-year-old daughter, Kaiya, has benefited from Strawberry Fields’ Early Intervention department. Kaiya, a pixie-faced sweetheart with an easygoing temperament, has what doctors call “global developmental delay.”

“Basically it means absolutely nothing, it means they don’t have a diagnosis for her,” Kramer says. “But all of her delays are even. Her weight, height, head size, cognitive abilities, social, physical, everything is the same: She functions at the level of a 9-month-old, even though she’s 2, in every aspect of her being.”
Kaiya sees a physical therapist twice a week, a speech therapist six times a month, an occupational therapist four times a month and a special instructor four times a month. The special instructor tries to encourage her curiosity and reinforces all the work that the other therapists are doing. All four kinds of therapy are covered by the state and coordinated through Strawberry Fields.

“The hope is if you give them enough services early enough, they get up to speed on everything,” says Susan Drenning, early intervention director for Strawberry Fields. Any child with at least a 25 percent delay in any area of development qualifies for the service, and once the child is referred for services, the needed therapies must begin within 14 days.

Annie Smith, a Strawberry Fields physical therapist, has been seeing Kaiya since she was 7 months old.Physical therapist Annie Smith fastens Kaiya Kramer into her special walker.Physical therapist Annie Smith fastens Kaiya Kramer into her special walker. Back then she worked with the baby girl on improving her muscle tone and muscle control. Now Kaiya can pull to stand and cruise around furniture. On a recent Monday, Smith strapped the little girl into a special walker in Kramer’s kitchen, and she and Kramer began encouraging Kaiya to walk.

“Our hope is by the time she outgrows this walker, she won’t need it,” Smith says of the piece of medical equipment that cost about $2,400, paid for by the state and Kramer’s supplemental insurance. “It’s important to get the experience of walking because kids learn by exploring their environment. She’s a sharp little girl, but she’s not exploring because of her physical disabilities, and that slows her mental growth. So it was important to get her a walker.”

This is the kind of expertise therapists like Smith bring to the family, which Kramer says is just one of the things he and Kaiya’s mom, Tara Geszvain, find indispensable.

“It gives us direction. They come and show us what we can do to help her walk, talk, communicate,” he says. “But a lot of it is emotional well-being for her mom and I. We don’t know a lot of people who have problems like she has, and they work with lots of these kids, so they’re aware of the trials and the challenges parents and a child like this have. We talk to them about things that she does, things we’ve experienced, and they help us understand, they help us overcome the challenges.”

Smith, the agency’s assistant director for Early Intervention, says her work with Strawberry Fields is fulfilling for many reasons. “This has been my favorite job I’ve ever had,” she says. “You become part of these families. You’re sitting on their living room floor every week, you almost feel like the child is your own. We see their milestones and their developments, and we laugh and we cry and we cheer.”

Kramer and Geszvain have been known to send text messages to their therapists when Kaiya hits a milestone or does something exciting on a weekend.

“They’re always so apologetic when they do that and I say, ‘No, please tell us!’ We want to share in the milestones with these kids,” Smith says.

The emotional investment makes it tough to say goodbye to the children when they hit their third birthday — that’s when the state’s Early Intervention program stops and the child’s school district picks up a lot of the services that might still be needed.
Strawberry Fields might see some of those kids down the line — and in fact already has.

“We have children that were in Early Intervention 15 to 18 years ago, and we now see them move into our other services,” Pasquinelli says.

But for countless other kids, that boost they get from Strawberry Fields at the beginning of their lives is just the jump-start they need to get on track with development and lead a healthy, independent life. •SCM

Return to top