January 21, 2021

50 years of progress

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The Village of Progress awards banquet may come once a year, but its winners spend every day giving their best.

This is the Village’s 50th year of serving adults with developmental disabilities, and Wednesday’s moderator, Tom Wadsworth, kept the mood uplifting – which was easy, given the love and support filling the room.

Most of the awards recognized VOP consumers who’ve made a difference in their peers’ lives or whose skills have risen above and beyond.

But the ceremony wouldn’t be complete without recognizing those who’ve helped ensure the Village continues to thrive.

The Robert Stouffer Special Recognition award traditionally goes to a person or business that has donated time, money or gifts. This year, two donors were recognized.

Crest Foods in Ashton, owned by the Meiners family, stepped up when Serenity Hospice & Home approached the Village with a clothes-baling operation. The Meiners enthusiastically donated money for a commercial bailing machine, Wadsworth said.

They didn’t stop there: The Meiners wanted to know how else they could help the Village, and now, thanks to a grant from the family, a wing of the facility is being renovated, getting a new handicap-accessible restroom, new flooring and a handicap-accessible desk.

The work is on track to be completed this winter.

Jeff Meiners said there are days when he drives home wondering if he’s done anything to make a difference.

That’s not the case for those who work at the Village, he said.

“I will say that the people from Village of Progress can drive home every single night and say ‘We made a different in somebody’s life’ – and what’s better than that?”

Also recognized was the Village’s second director, Craig Carpenter, now retired.

Carpenter came to VOP in 1973 as a direct care worker, Wadsworth said. When founding director Bob Glaser retired at the end of 2007, Carpenter took the helm after years of developing and overseeing a variety of entrepreneurial ventures.

He couldn’t have come at a better time – Carpenter’s “fiscally conservative” mindset helped the Village navigate the 2008 recession, Wadsworth said.

He not only kept the Village afloat during hard times, but when he retired in 2014, he also left the cash reserves at historic highs.

“It was because of Craig’s leadership that the Village was later able to modernize its facilities and ultimately create the Village Bakery, which has now entered its third year of operation,” Wadsworth said.

The Village is a community effort, Carpenter said, congratulating everyone in the room for their contribution to keeping the organization in the community for 50 years.

As he looked to the audience, he noted the faces of those who have been there since the beginning 50 years ago, and remembered the faces of those who since have been lost.

“Let’s think for a moment, of all the people who can’t be with us to join the celebration. So many people over the years – the parents, the consumers, staff and board members who would have loved to join us tonight.

“In fact, I think they are with us tonight in our 50th year birthday party.”

Volunteers such as Frank Swingel, winner of the Jane Etnyre Volunteer of the Year award, donate many hours of their time to the Village and its mission.

Swingel, a retired Mount Morris teacher and coach, began volunteering his time as a driver in 2007. When another volunteer in charge of 23 people moved away in 2017, Swingel stepped in so classes so could continue.

A close friend told Swingel about the Village, he said Wednesday. He recalled telling his wife that if he hadn’t already put in 12 years worth of teaching, he thought it’d be a place he’d like to work. When he moved back to the area from Mendota, the Village was one of the first places he visited.

He’s glad he did.

“The consumers – you make my day when I come to see you,” he said.

“I enjoy working with you, and the day is just a little better for me when I am there with you. Keep up the good work.”

The night also celebrated the successes of the Village’s consumers.

Adam Oltmanns, this year’s recipient of the John Herrmann Personal Achievement Award, works a couple of positions at Wahl Clipper in Sterling. He has continued to increase his piece rate for his tray-making responsibilities, and now makes 6,000 trays a month.

He’s known for being a jokester, and when Wadsworth asked him his grandparents’ name, Oltmanns stated the obvious.

“Grandpa and Grandma,” he said.

Virginia Saldana, recipient of the Robert Moehle Personal Achievement Award, was recognized for her persistence and “willingness to succeed” in spite of obstacles, Wadsworth said.

Saldana, who joined the Village in 2012, took to the stage like a star and gave Wadsworth a subtle hint to give her a kiss on the cheek after receiving her plaque.

Tony Yates, winner of the Carly Heller Special Olympian Award, was recognized for his athleticism. He’s most proud of has basketball skills, but he also bowls and does track and field.

Yates, a Cubs fan, didn’t hold back when asked about what he thinks the Cubs should do to win.

“They need a new manager.”

Diane Bicknese, in a way, grew with the VOP: The Robert Stahl Friendship Award recipient has been attending since 1971. Her “contagious smile” and “positive attitude” makes her a favorite with her peers, Wadsworth said.

Bicknese’s award seemed like an easy decision. When asked who was her best friend, her reply was simple: