For the last 30 years, Kelly Cunningham has called United Cerebral Palsy Central California her home away from home.
It might not have been that way had she followed her first path into ag business after growing up on a ranch.
Cunningham, UCPCC’s director of adult program services, got her first exposure to working with people with disabilities as a volunteer opportunity. Her father, Jim, was a volunteer with Special Olympics in Merced County.
“He had me go out once and I just really enjoyed myself,” Cunningham says. “I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t intimidated. I felt comfortable. It just became something I really enjoyed.”
After a stint as a criminology major, Cunningham graduated with a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology with a specialty in adaptive physical education. She looked at working in the public school system but realized quickly after completing student teaching that it was not where she wanted to go.
Her job hunt landed her at UCPCC where she started in the homebound program doing adaptive physical education.
“At the time, there were very few jobs in APE (adaptive physical education) … and those were the kids I wanted to work with,” Cunningham says. “I just thought [the job at UCPCC} would be temporary until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life."
Cunningham says programs at that time were run very differently than they are today. When she started, UCPCC had 52 students who were kept in groups of four or six depending on which part of the program they were in, and they would have the same teacher all day long.
“It was horrible,” Cunningham says. “So many behaviors. It was just very dysfunctional. But that was the norm.”
Then she changed the way UCPCC works. And the change was instrumental in what makes UCPCC what it is today.
Cunningham worked in the homebound program for seven years before the position of program manager opened up. She applied and she got the promotion.
One of the first orders of business was to alter how UCPCC worked with the disabled adults it serves. After a lot of trial and error, UCPCC staff realized their programs needed to give students a louder voice.
“When we gave our students choice and control, they flourished,” Cunningham says.
“We started with quarters with three classes a day,” Cunningham explains. “We quickly realized that as our population grew and moving that many wheelchairs around … it wasn’t easy."
So UCPCC went to its current trimester program with two classes a day, as well as lunch and meeting the basic care needs of our disabled adult students. And 52 students grew to 400.
“We couldn’t let our basic care falter,” Cunningham says. “We make a huge investment and such emphasis on that part of their day.”
Choice meant behavioral issues were fewer. Students were doing what they wanted to do and being exposed to new experiences.
“NOT EVERYONE MAKES IT HERE"
For Cunningham, it’s a no-brainer why she has worked at UCPCC for 30 years: the students.
“It’s my morning visit - I have five or six [students] … we have the same conversations, the same questions, the same jokes.
“It’s watching their growth and their lives and becoming a part of their family,” Cunningham adds.
It’s often been said that programs like UCPCC’s serve students from “birth to death.” And that’s the biggest challenge for Cunningham.
“We serve a more medically fragile group of students and because of that there is a lot of loss,” she says. “That’s really difficult, to watch the loss. Not everyone makes it here.”
What drives Cunningham is her work ethic. And that she got growing up the daughter of a rancher in LeGrand, California, where they produced cattle and turkeys.
“We just work hard,” she says. “If it needs to be done, you do it and I would never ask someone I work with to do something I would not do myself. I enjoy a very busy day … it helps time to pass more quickly.”
Cunningham’s work ethic and years of experience are proving essential at a time like this, when a global pandemic has kept UCPCC’s doors closed since March. She says making sure students and staff are confident in UCPCC’s decisions is key.
“First and foremost I’m trying to calm fears of our staff and our students to let them know they are important and what they do is vital,” Cunningham says. “As an agency we are going to bring them back when we are whole. I think our students are missing us and we are missing them. We maintain that balance so people know we have the best of them in our decisions.”
If you ask staff, they agree having Cunningham’s style of leadership at a time like this makes the challenges seem less daunting.
“She has a lot of experience working in this industry and is always willing to share her own life experiences,” says Emily Mercado, UCPCC adult programs student advisor, of Cunningham.
Mercado, who has worked at UCPCC for the last eight years, says Cunningham is a great person to talk through things with and always lends a listening ear.
“Kelly has taught me a lot of things, but the most valuable has been that in times of frust
ration while managing people, reminding myself that we are all different and all come from different backgrounds and upbringings can help me relax and do my best while coaching someone else to do better,” Mercado says.
Mercado says she knew exactly the type of person Cunningham was when she was 19 years old and locked her keys in her car.
“I called my dad who totally laid into me,” Mercado says. “I remember walking into Kelly’s office, tears rolling down my face, asking if I could answer my phone when my dad called due to the situation. Kelly called her personal triple A roadside service and helped me get my keys out of my car.
“At that point in time, I knew what kind of person she was and I knew that I could always count on her when I needed help,” Mercado adds. “I think that people underestimate the value in having a supervisor that is supportive and helpful in your time of need and to me, that is what Kelly is.”
Jennifer Lamonski, who works as UCPCC’s program support specialist, has worked with Cunningham for 13 years, first as an instructor and then in her current role. Lamonski calls it “an eye-opening experience.”
“I now get to see a totally different side of Kelly and I absolutely love it,” Lamonski says. “It was like suddenly everything Kelly has ever said or done made complete sense.
"She is a woman who knows what she wants/needs and she knows how to accomplish it,” Lamonski adds.
Executive Director Roger Slingerman says it’s an honor to work with someone who has the passion to work with students with disabilities and the breadth of knowledge Cunningham has.
“She continually works outside the box and finds creative ways to better serve the UCPCC students,” Slingerman says. “She is also an advocate for the staff for better pay and the overall well-being of staff members.”
Vonny Sturgeon, a board member and one of the founders of UCPCC, says Cunningham’s zeal for supporting people with disabilities has never waned.
“She started here as a young girl with stars in her eyes about serving people with disabilities,” Sturgeon says. “She adapted quickly, never losing her zeal for the personal touch with her students. She is creative, dedicated and tenacious … and has been an outstanding example of devotion to a personal cause.”
When Cunningham isn’t leading by example, she and her partner, Marcy Gatzman, are busy raising four children: Sam, 23, Jeremiah, 18, Kelsey, 13, and Logan, 12. And much like the diehard Dodgers fan does at UCPCC, Cunningham leads her family as a coach.
“I love to coach,” Cunningham says. “I’ve coached all of my children in their sports. I love to camp and hike. We do an awful lot together as a family.”
And for 30 years, UCPCC has been honored to be a part of Cunningham’s family, as well.