Sue Walz credits the Coulee Region Adult Day Center with helping rescue her after she lost everything — and nearly her life — to her bipolar disorder.
After the 50-year-old La Crosse woman was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD two decades ago, she said, “It took away everything. I lost it all. I had to quit teaching, so I lost my career. I lost my marriage. I lost my friends.
“When I needed them, they were gone, and I isolated myself, like people with mental illness do, for a very long time,” said Walz, a mother of three who lost partial custody of them for a time and was homeless for four months.
“That’s what this disease can do with you,” she said.
“What helped me with recovery — that doesn’t mean cured, because I still have it — was God and my faith in God,” and getting a job at the Coulee Region center, said Walz, a member of First Free Church in Onalaska.
Center owner Amy Kepler and her assistant, Darcie Marks, “gave me a chance to work when nobody else would. They knew I had a mental illness. They have given me the courage to continue my life.”
Walz’s experience helps explain why the Family and Children’s Center honored Kepler as its employer of the year Monday night. Walz secured her job as a client in the FCC’s Supported Employment Program.
“Coulee Region Adult Day Center was one of our first employers, and they serve on our steering committee,” said Kathy Rohr, program supervisor at the FCC.
“They gave us perspective to better understand what employers today need,” Rohr said.
Kepler’s business not only includes two FCC clients among its 44 employees but also has provided job-shadow opportunities for others, Rohr said.
For her part, Kepler lauds the Family and Children’s Center as a “great organization for helping people, coaching, finding jobs and counseling.”
Such actions dovetail with the center’s mission to help clients with Alzheimer’s, dementia and special needs ranging from total care to teaching daily living skills, Kepler said.
Kepler’s business, which opened with five clients in 2011, now serves nearly 100 in its four facilities, which include the day center and a group home in Onalaska, a day center in Sparta and a group home in Richland Center.
“Our passion — we really believe in what we do — is to help people,” said Kepler, 31, who has an associate’s degree in human services, a bachelor’s in human services management and a master’s in psychology.
Hiring people such as Walz adds a dimension to the center, Kepler said.
“They come in with a different perspective. They come in knowing they’ve suffered and they come in knowing they can help,” she said.
Walz brings “a positive attitude and she is always looking for something new and exciting to do with them in activities,” Kepler said.
The job fuels her fervor, said Walz, a former special education teacher.
“They gave me a job in my field, in which I can help cognitively disabled adults — that’s my passion. At least I’ve got that part of my life back,” she said.
“When I taught special ed, I got paid to give love. Now I get paid to give love again. What’s better than that?” Walz said.
“Even if I’m having a bad day myself, I go in to such an amazing place of love and joy that, by the time I leave, I’m happy and field good about myself.”
Having attempted to take her own life because suicidal thoughts are common with severe bipolar disorder, Walz said, “A lot of people who commit suicide I don’t think really want to be gone forever. They just want to escape the pain.
“I’m alive because of the grace of God,” she said. “He wants me to be here for a reason. There are so many areas he wants me to work.”
Although Kepler and the FCC label Walz a success story, she demurs.
“I’m not a success story — yet,” Walz said. “I won’t be a success until I accomplish my goals of helping people and reducing the stigma of mental illness.”