Carolyn Bernett, Search’s Senior Program Manager in our Adult Learning Program, is retiring from Search, on Friday, September 3rd. With over 35 years of service at Search, Carolyn has made a tremendous impact on our Search family and on the thousands of individuals we have served during these years. In her most recent role as Senior Program Manager, Carolyn has acted as a mentor to several of our Managers and Coordinators in the Adult Learning department. Her knowledge and experience have been invaluable resources that she has shared with the next generation of leaders at Search.
With a mix of excitement and sadness, Carolyn is excited to move onto this next chapter in her life with her family and pursue some of her favorite hobbies with her husband, Terry. She enjoys gardening, traveling, swimming, and golfing. She really looks forward to visiting her son, Ryan, who used to work at Search, and her first grandchild, Maeve.
Our team sat down with Carolyn to hear more about her incredible story with Search.
Q: Describe your history at Search. How long have you been on the team, what positions have you held?
A: Over the years I have worked at several sites. I started working at Search Inc. as a Coordinator and Montessori Instructor back when Search was a school for children who had been locked out of the public school system because they had developmental disabilities. Then I went on to work in our Adult Learning program, where I was a Program Manager. For the last 6 years, I have been Senior Program Manager at our Mt. Prospect Adult Learning site.
Q: What were the biggest changes you have witnessed in your time here?
A: There have been countless changes over the years, as you can imagine. The expansion of services and enrollment has increased a great deal. When I joined Search we were providing services to children. As Coordinator and Montessori Instructor, I wore many hats and was responsible for intake, training new staff, and setting up classrooms. At this time, we were providing services in rental spaces, like church basements, that weren’t accessible.
In the early to mid-90s, we transitioned to adult services. Since then Search has built its infrastructure to include multiple departments, including Human Resources, Training Department, Employment Services, and Clinical Services, that allowed for an expansion of services, and built beautiful accessible spaces that meet the needs of the individuals we serve.
Another big change is the delivery of service. Search has always believed in person-centered supports, but in years past, the state dictated what services needed to be offered. We have come full circle, as the state now recognizes the importance and benefits of person-centered planning.
Q: What were the biggest accomplishments you and Search have made?
A: I feel very fortunate to be a part of the Search team. Together we’ve accomplished so much.
Thirty-five years ago we opened our facilities to people who had been housed in state institutions; people who had never been integrated into the community or had the opportunity to attend a day program off-site. We provided the supports these individuals needed to adjust to a new way of living; we expanded our on-site services, including clinical services; and we went from providing only day services to supporting 30 community-integrated living arrangements (CILAs).
Together we have been able to stay mission-focused and along the way find the fun and joy in our work.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you and Search have had to face?
A: One of the challenges that comes to mind is when we expanded our services to people living in state institutions. When these individuals came to Search, we did not understand their needs immediately. It took time to figure out what support each person needed.
These individuals had little to no exposure to life outside of the walls of the institutions. For example, some had never seen stairs or sat in a chair! Search was tasked with teaching them a lot of basic daily life skills, such as eating, washing, or sitting in a chair.
Additionally, funding programs like Search has always been a challenge and remains one today. This includes paying our direct support workers (DSPs) the wage they deserve.
Also, who can forget the pandemic of 2020!? It created a lot of logistics and safety issues, but this is when Search employees really stepped up and navigated these uncertain times.
Everyone put themselves at risk to support the people we serve. Staff dealt with constantly-changing situations, policies, and procedures and took on roles and assignments outside of job descriptions; some staff moved into CILAs for weeks at a time to support the individuals we support; others became the connection from the outside world to the CILAs and did weekly shopping and mail and medical deliveries.
Q: What are you most proud of regarding your work at Search?
A: I’m proud that Search and staff have always stayed focused and committed to their mission, and along the way, find the fun and joy in our work.
It brings me joy to see our staff’s dedication to their work and the people we serve. I’ve seen staff rally together for a common cause whether it involves the people we serve or a co-worker.
I feel very fortunate to be part of the Search team.
Q: What will you miss the most?
A: I think what I’ll miss the most is the connection that people here have with one another – both staff and individuals – and being a part of that. I love to see how we come together to make things happen for the better of the people we serve and program at large.
Q: What advice can you share with the colleagues you are leaving behind?
A: Our work can be challenging but it is very rewarding. Remember to take time to also care for yourselves and to ask for help when you need it.
Carolyn, on behalf of JJ’s List and the entire Search team, we wish you well! You will be deeply missed.
“Carolyn leaves a legacy at Search of kindness, compassion, and a welcoming smile. Her contributions at Search over the last many years are immense and she will be greatly missed. Best wishes in her well-deserved retirement!” – Cory Gumm, Search Inc. CEO