by Adiba Nelson
Prior to interviewing her, the only thing I knew about Ema Kammeyer was that she has two children (Gracie and Oliver), she has great fashion sense, and that she is the Chief Executive Officer of Easter Seals Blake Foundation. What I was about to learn, and the priceless nugget of wisdom she would unknowingly impart - well, that I couldn't have predicted.
Ema Gobel Kammeyer was born in Hungary and moved with her family to Connecticut when she was three years old. After experimenting with a few different colleges, at age 20 she decided to get serious about school and moved to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona. Having many interests led her to graduate with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, with minors in Classics and Oriental Studies. Three semesters in graduate school were interesting but insufficiently inspiring to her. Having a natural skill to effectively argue a point, she decided to attend law school and graduated from the U of A College of Law in 1981.
While practicing law with a small private firm, a friend (who was also the President of the Board for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation) approached her about helping the organization. They had no leadership, and were losing many of their funding agencies due to non-compliance with contractual requirements. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Ema agreed to help out on a part-time basis, and in 1984 joined the Cerebral Palsy Foundation (now Easter Seals Blake Foundation) as Chief Executive Officer. At that time, the agency had 35 employees, 2 programs (Children's Achievement Center and an Adult Day program housed at the ATPT campus), served 44 families, and had an operating budget of $225,000. Thirty years later, the agency boasts 990+ employees, over 75 program sites throughout Southern Arizona, serves over 20,000 families each year, and has an operating budget of $34 million.
Cleary, Ema is a force to be reckoned with. I wanted to know more. I needed to know what inspired this woman to take a struggling organization from near failure to its current position as one of the most successful and well-known agencies in Tucson.
I wondered if Ema had anyone in her family who was affected by special needs, or had ever been directly impacted by someone who had special needs. One has to imagine that there is often a direct correlation between personal experience and professional endeavors. Her answer surprised me - in a good way. Ema does not have anyone in her family who is affected by special needs. She didn't spend her summers as a camp counselor. She accepted a challenge, rose to (and exceeded) the occasion, and is propelled forward by the continuing challenge and opportunities to achieve positive changes in our community through her work. Ema says, "There is huge satisfaction in knowing that my work, enabling the provision of the highest quality of human services to individuals one by one, is cumulatively helping to affect positive and significant change in our society."
Ema has learned an amazing amount about life and the human spirit from the clients and families whom the agency serves. While she does not work directly with clients, she knows that she is benefitting them by doing her job well. Running the agency well allows employees to do their jobs well, which in turn impacts the community, and it all flows back. This is what Ema feels is the most gratifying thing about her work: the "reflected glory" of the amazing work done by all the staff of the agency. When asked what she is most proud of professionally, it's the agency's growth, heading up a well-respected agency and the executive team she has been able to put together. To hear her tell it, she's been "lucky" with her hires, and they enable her to do her job well. I agree with her, but I also think she doesn't give herself enough credit. When Ema came on board in 1984, there were only 3 therapeutic services being offered to a relatively small group of children and adults with physical and cognitive challenges. Today, Easter Seals Blake Foundation offers, Supported Employment, Community Day Programs, Speech Therapy, Sensory Integrations Services, a full-time inclusive child care center, Head Start and Early Head Start programs, Early Childhood Educator Trainings, Newborn and Preemie Care Programs, Adult Independent Living Supports and Small Group Community Residences, Behavioral Health Services from infancy through adulthood, and many, many more. As I stated earlier, Ema is a force to be reckoned with.
She also has a clear vision of where she would like to see the agency go in the future. She states that right now significant growth is difficult due to the legislative climate, but she is steadily building the infrastructure to sustain our current level of service so that Easter Seals Blake Foundation may grow in the future. She would like to eventually see the Children's Achievement Center partnered with a possible charter school, enhance infant, child and adolescent behavioral health programs (to include services for the seriously mentally ill), and continuing to support children, families, and individuals with services tailored to emerging needs in the community. She would also like to see the agency champion more teacher training programs in the community through the Quality First Initiative, support the push for more integrated/inclusive classrooms in public schools (including additional educational services), and be a leader in advocacy for the populations we serve. Ema's life may not have been directly impacted by special needs or an at-risk family member, but it is obvious that she is 100% committed to the work of creating an expansive network of resources, services, and programs to help those whose lives are challenged. It is also obvious that if Ema ever decides to leave the agency (which I pray she doesn't), she will leave behind quite a legacy. I'm curious as to what legacy she hopes to leave, both professionally and personally. She answers me in three parts. And I have to say, these answers resonated with me all day, they have changed the way I move forward in my personal and professional life.
"Professionally, I would like to be remembered for enriching the Southern Arizona community with an agency that has been a major player in improving the lives of our citizens who need support. And that I've helped to build an agency that has well-respected, highly credible, and effective programs. Personally, I would like to be remembered as someone who continually challenges the status quo and never accepts defeat easily."
This last part of Ema's answer threw me for a loop simply because I wasn't expecting it. She told me about how she loves to ski, and how it is her tradition that on the last run of every ski trip she goes "off path", down a run or over a jump which she's never done before and has no business trying, never knowing what she's about to face. She feels like doing something this dangerous gives her a bit of "extra life" - it exhilarates her, wakes up her senses, makes life a bit larger and more immediate somehow. I told her I could never do such a thing because a) I don't ski, and b) I'm just not that brave.
"You always have to push the edge a little bit because you might not get another chance to do so."
Truer words have never been spoken. She is living proof that 'pushing the edge' can take an agency from the brink of extinction to changing tens of thousands of lives.
danny Blake was born into your typical American blue collar family.
After enduring a particularly grueling childbirth, danny was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and it was recommended that he be immediately placed in an institution. His parents staunchly refused and took their son home to join his family. At home, danny was like any other member of the family, with chores and responsibilities. In 1955 at the age 5, danny was named the Easterseals Child of year and was photographed with Governor Laushe of Ohio.
There was no such thing as “inclusion” in 1958 – anyone different was separate. However, it didn't take long for danny's educators to realize that his “differences” were only surface level. In the third grade he moved into the general education population. Initially danny remembers being, tormented, teased, and even physically beaten by his peers. While many children would let this treatment deter them from school, danny persisted, and within two years his tormentors became his friends, supporters, and motivators. By his senior year he was the school President, editor of the school yearbook, and graduating near the top of his class with a 3.8 GPA.
He attended Miami of Ohio for his freshman year and then moved with his family to Arizona, and enrolled in Arizona State University to complete his Bachelors and ultimately received a Master's Degree in Social Service Administration. After graduation, he moved to San Francisco but despite his qualifications, he was only offered employment at the local Cerebral Palsy Center, where he became an agency spokesperson and disability advocate. He spoke/taught courses on emerging issues of the decade like Sexuality and Disability. When he returned to Southern Arizona in 1985, he became a board member of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation of Southern Arizona. He was instrumental in helping the agency obtain a half-million dollar grant from Angel Charities, giving the final speech on hope and perseverance, which left the entire room in tears. By 1993, Cerebral Palsy Foundation of Southern Arizona was serving more than just those with Cerebral Palsy and decided to change their name to The Blake Foundation, in honor of danny. In 2006 the agency became an Easterseals affiliate. danny remains on the Board of Directors and is a past Board President.
danny spells his name with “d” in order to carrying his experiences as a youth with him in his adult life. Thankfully, the world is a different place for people with disabilities today. danny’s life serves as a reminder of how far we have come and the work left to do.