United Cerebral Palsy Central California would not be what it is today without Vonny Sturgeon and her husband, Ed, and more importantly their son Brian, who is a UCPCC student and the reason UCPCC was formed in the first place. Ed and Vonny, who is currently a UCPCC board member, were instrumental in founding the UCP affiliate back in 1954 with just a handful of students who would gather with their families at Dickey Playground in downtown Fresno for support and collaboration. The organization now serves more than 1,100 children and adults with a range of disabilities in a seven-county area of Central California.
Vonny Sturgeon has made a life as an advocate for all people with disabilities. We talked with her recently about the COVID-19 pandemic, what she sees ahead for the future of UCPCC, and even what some of her favorite books are.
What do you think the future holds for UCPCC?
That is a difficult question. There are so many schools of thought. One of them is more elaborate collaboration with other organizations who serve like-individuals. We’ve done a little of that. And we’ve given it a lot of lip service over the years. But … everyone is very protective of their own brand. Nationally, we are doing a wonderful job with ANCOR (the American Network of Community Options and Resources, which supports nonprofit organizations that help people with disabilities by helping to shape policy). ... And that’s been very successful. And none of the organizations have lost their identity. I don’t ever want to lose the incredible reputation we’ve gained as United Cerebral Palsy.
What motivates you?
Our son Brian, who has cerebral palsy, was the initial motivator and continues to be. Having a son with very special needs, you do all the things for his welfare and hope that it has an even-broader impact.
What would you like people to know about you?
I would like people to know that I carried on my husband’s legacy with UCPCC. He was very passionate about it and I am too.
What would you like people to know about UCPCC?
At one my point we (UCP’s national organization) was written up in “Money Magazine” as the Number 1 nonprofit organization that spent the least on administration costs and the most on program. We are very, very proud of that.
The integrity of the organization has always been so important …. I want people to realize how volunteers have cherished the work of the organization. For thirty years, it was mostly volunteer-driven.
Our staff people who are angels on Earth. … it takes very knowledgeable, skillful and dedicated staff to work with the many complexities of our students every day.
What is the hardest thing about being an advocate? What’s the most rewarding?
To be knowledgeable of all the opportunities that there are. That’s very difficult to learn that. It’s quite convoluted in some ways. You have to be so knowledgeable and lean on people who are. That is what makes the difference. It’s necessary.
The most rewarding of all is to see so many of our dreams coming true - so many things that were just very, very visionary that have come to fruition through federal and state funding. And there is still a lot of passion and compassion in fundraising. We started out with 18 students in a playground and look how far we’ve come! And it’s very exciting to have people pounding on our door (to get in).
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Oh I can’t tell those!
What is your proudest achievement?
One time when Ed and I were in the theater, we were asked something similar to that. They asked us, “What are your favorite productions?” And we would say, “Our children.” And that’s still true.
If you could say something positive about the pandemic, what would it be?
I think for the most part, it has brought our country together in a universal crisis, something that we can all identify with, somewhat like 9/11 (the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.). And then the creativity that came from trying to combat it and the teamwork that it took.
What is your favorite way to spend a lazy day?
Fireplace, a book and a glass of wine. I love biographies. Anything about FDR and Kennedy. I loved (former President Barack) Obama’s book and Michelle Obama’s book. Next to my bed right now I have Harry Truman’s biography, but I’m currently reading “1776” by David McCullough.
Best piece of advice from Vonny Sturgeon
Be passionate about what you do.