Profile by Sherry Kaniuga (Creative Communications, 1998)
Moments that make you realize “it’s all worth it” can happen anywhere, any time. For Sandy Kauenhofen, one of those moments hit while she was hundreds of feet in the air.
She was strapped in a tiny four-seater airplane soaring above the Pembina Valley at the time, as part of an excursion for people with disabilities living in a community home she worked at in Carman, Manitoba. When she first came up with the idea to take people flying instead of to somewhere on solid ground like the zoo, not everyone was on board.
“The families said, ‘Are you kidding? What if they don’t like it?’” Kauenhofen remembers. Her response? “Well, then we’ll land!”
The risk was worth the reward. Sandy recalls one woman who was clearly apprehensive about taking to the skies.
“When she first got onto the plane, she was looking at us like, ‘What the heck is this?!’ She had a really puzzled look that turned into a bit of a scowl as we taxied down the runway,” Kauenhofen says. “But as soon as the plane lifted off the ground, the grin on her face got so big and so wide, I had tears in my eyes. You could tell by the look in her eyes that she just loved it and was so excited. It was the most exquisitely amazing experience.”
Now a coordinator at Epic Opportunities – a non-profit organization in Winnipeg that offers holistic, person-centred supports to empower people with an intellectual disability to live, learn, work and enjoy life in the community – Sandy works more behind the scenes, overseeing the staff teams by providing leadership and support as well as supporting individuals living in their homes. But although she is less hands-on, she says she is grateful every day to work with amazing people, a passion first ignited in her when she volunteered with St. Amant Centre’s school program while in high school.
“Every person I come across in this field, I learn something from. Whether it’s helping me to learn patience, or to appreciate a different way of communicating, I get the opportunity to learn and to continue to grow every day.”
Kauenhofen says her experience in RRC’s Disability and Community Support program helped strengthen the conviction that she has chosen the right career.
Fairly new in town, Sandy looked for part-time work she could balance with being a mom. She became a direct support worker at Rainbow Residence in Carman, a community home that was part of the provincial “Welcome Home” program to move people from the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie into communities. A few years later she became Rainbow Residence’s executive director.
It was while working there that Kauenhofen completed the RRC program in 2010 – and took residents on that exciting flight – as part of the then-new work placement version of the program sponsored by Family Services, which allowed her to attend classes two days a week while continuing to work.
“When I first heard of the opportunity, I really wanted to do it to validate what I had been doing for 15 years – to get some education and see how I could do it better,” says Kauenhofen, whose three children are now in their teens and twenties.
“I’ll never forget my first day on campus; I kind of looked around and felt like everybody was watching me and thinking ‘Whose mom is she?’”
The Disability and Community Support program has helped to professionalize her field, allowing workers to become more knowledgeable about the services they provide, Kauenhofen says.
“We’re supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our community, and a lot of people come into this field without much training at all. That’s not great.”
Her background ended up working in her favour. Some of her classmates were “workplace” students like her; others were just out of high school with no related experience.
“We got to learn from [the younger students’] very innocent perspectives, and they got to learn from our experiences. We all wanted to do better in the work we do, supporting people and helping them learn and grow and achieve the things they want in their lives,” she says.
Kauenhofen now shares stories of experiences and challenges in her field with students who are starting out in the workplace program. And while they learn from her, she says she continues to learn from the people she supports each day.
“As much as I’m giving them, they’re giving to me. I love the exchange and the interaction; I love hearing about successes in people’s lives,” Kauenhofen says.
Just like the people she took flying that day: “Those kinds of things are so rewarding,” she says. “You can see what you’ve done and how you can make a difference pretty quickly.”
Click here to learn more about RRC’s Disability and Community Support program.