This disability pride month, one Flagstaff nonprofit is helping people find and celebrate their purpose | Local
SIERRA FERGUSON Sun Staff Reporter
When a baby is born, the future can feel uncertain. For Tonnya Jensen, that uncertainty was compounded by not one, but two disabilities. Jensen lost her central vision to Stargardt Disease, and eight years ago her daughter, Autumn, was born with Down Syndrome.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! How am I going to do this as a single mom, being blind myself?’” Jensen recounts. At the time she was a member of the team at Quality Connections (QC), a nonprofit organization in Flagstaff, dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities to become independent and productive community members.
Faced with the proposition of raising two kids — one with special needs — on her own, she called QC’s founder and CEO, Armando Bernasconi.
“I remember calling up Armando at the time and talking about it and he goes, ‘Well, look at the bright side! You’ve got everything here, and when Autumn turns 16, she’s got a job.’ It just made me smile,” she said.
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Now, Jensen’s daughter is thriving at Evergreen Academy Preschool, a facility ran by Quality Connections. QC employees can access free childcare at Evergreen, and people like Catherine Peppard can pursue their dreams of working in childcare.
Peppard is proud to tell anyone she’s a co-teacher. Her dream to work as an educator hasn’t always been easy to pursue. She was born with a disability that sometimes means it takes her more time and effort to learn than some of her peers. That hasn’t stopped her from tackling her career goals, and in December of this year she’s expected to graduate with an associate’s degree in Child Development from Rio Salado Community College.
“Catherine is another support that we have,” Jensen said, “She helps take care of Autumn. She’s a big part of that. She’ll say, ‘Tonnya, what do you want me to work on with Autumn, I’ll do it!’ I feel really good working at QC and being supported in that way. It’s awesome.”
Daycare is just one service the nonprofit provides to its employees and the community as a whole. Quality Connections, as described by its founder, is a training center at its heart.
“Work, for at least most of us, helps provide us with identity. Most people describe themselves like Catherine — she is a teacher. What QC does is it helps people find themselves.” Bernasconi said.
In the conference room at the nonprofit’s main office on Steve’s Boulevard, there’s a series of framed black and white photos. One of the pictures is of a young man named Ben Sutcliff, who was Bernasconi’s college roommate.
“I provided attending care to him. He wanted more than anything in life to have a job and a girlfriend. We started Quality Connections in 1999 to help him find that job,” Bernasconi said. “He became our web master for QC Office.”
QC Office is an income driver for the organization, and an on-the-job training program. Quality Connections acts as a vendor for office supplies (mostly serving businesses). In helping Flagstaff businesses to source printer paper, pens, and paperclips they also train people to manage inventory, answer phones and deliver products.
For Jensen, it’s a place to put her customer service and office management skills to use. She has access to the monitors and equipment she needs to not be impaired by her disability, and her co-workers describe her as an asset. She’s found so much success at QC Office, she’s now a home owner.
“QC has been my cheerleader in all this, as well as for anybody who comes through this program,” she said.
Quality Connections serves more than 300 people in northern Arizona, providing employment training and on-the-job services, residential programs that help people with barriers refine living skills for personal independence at home, and a Montessori-based adult day program. They employ more than 125 people.
Ben Sutcliff is no longer alive, but Bernasconi continues to honor his memory by helping other people with disabilities to find their purpose, and understand that they are assets. People like the teacher, Catherine Peppard; the Customer Service Manager, Tonnya Jensen; and ultimately Autumn, who will have cheerleaders on her side as she pursues her dreams.
“It is the most fulfilling thing that I’ve ever done and it continues to be fulfilling,” Bernasconi said.
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