Sherry Kolodziejczak: Public Innovator Pick

This edition of The Harwood Institute’s Public Innovator Pick features a Q&A with Sherry Kolodziejczak of Huntsville, Alabama who in 2014 attended AARP’s Volunteer Leadership Institute (VLI). The elite program, which provides instruction in the Harwood approach, is designed for volunteers who want to take their service to the next level of leadership. Through the VLI, Sherry learned the Harwood tools that she now applies to her volunteer work serving on AARP’s Alabama Executive Council and as Alabama State Coordinator for Driver Safety.  She also has used the Harwood approach in her work as Director of Therapy at Crestwood Medical Center, constantly challenging herself to find new ways to help people suffering from life-altering injuries and neurological diseases such as ALS and Parkinson’s. One way she does this is by borrowing a wheelchair and using it in various places so that she can discern the specific challenges and needs of people who use wheelchairs.

Sherry, an AARP volunteer since she was 20, says her Harwood training has given her a “stronger voice in sharing with community leaders the importance of understanding the community.” She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in occupational therapy, serves on several boards and volunteers with the Alabama ALS Association, the American Heart Association, Habitat for Humanity and the Parkinson’s Support Group of Alabama.

After learning the Harwood practice through the VLI training, Sherry ultimately changed the direction of a well-intentioned project designed for care-givers of stroke victims by helping set up community conversations to determine the community’s need and desire for the planned endeavor. Following is the Q&A with Sherry.

The Harwood Institute: How did you first come into contact with The Harwood Institute?

Sherry Kolodziejczak: As part of AARP’s Volunteer Leadership Institute Class of 2014, I learned about The Harwood Institute through Harwood coach Carlton Sears. Carlton taught us different techniques for working with your community to find out what people truly want – not just assuming or thinking you know what people and communities want.

The concept of being “turned outward” was intriguing and really made sense to me. As the year progressed and I attended more and more webinars and live presentations about it, I was positive that I could really make a greater and long-lasting impact on my community by applying the Harwood tools I was learning. I had an opportunity to do this when I was giving a talk at a care-giving support function at a church a couple of hours from where I live. While there, I met a college advisor who told me about a new project he was spearheading with students to improve the lives of those caring for spouses who have had a stroke.

The project was to make changes to a walking path near the church so that it was wheelchair-accessible and could be used by care-givers pushing their spouses in wheelchairs. It sounded on the surface like a good idea and clearly the intentions behind it were good, but I wondered how he had come up with this plan. Part of my curiosity came from knowing that part of town, which has a large senior population, and my familiarity with stroke care-givers and the kinds of issues that are most important to them. With my new Harwood training in mind, I felt compelled to ask him about how the idea had come about and how he’d determined it met the needs of the stroke care-giver community.

He said he’d noticed from using the walking path himself that it was narrow and had many gravel transition points, which would make it difficult for someone in a wheelchair. I asked if he felt confident that a more accessible walking path was something the care-givers wanted. He hesitated and told me that no one had ever posed that question to him. I then asked him if he would be willing to do some small-group discussions in the community to see if stroke care-givers would benefit from this project. He was open to that, and I worked with him to put together three separate community discussions shortly after we met.

Much to his surprise, not a single participant showed support for the proposed project.  Afterward, we discussed the lack of backing for his plan, and I raised a point I’d learned through the Harwood approach: Sometimes what we think a community wants can be very different from what a community wants or needs. From my own experience, for example, I know that elderly people caring for spouses who are stroke victims often have difficulty getting them into wheelchairs or lack the physical strength to push wheelchairs outside their home.

In fact, those who came to the small-group meetings talked about the kinds of things they felt would help them provide daily care to loved ones with strokes, like better transportation for stroke victims, training in one-on-one care-giving and accessing respite care – facilities with short-term accommodations for people with special needs.

Even though he already had funding for the walking path project, he and the students put it aside and set up free courses about the issues that care-givers in the small-group meetings said they wanted, such as learning about modifying their homes to make them easier to navigate, techniques for safely moving stroke victims into and out of their wheelchairs, fall prevention and self-care tips.

I taught some of the initial training workshops and also trained others to conduct home and fall assessments. The advisor and students have found other volunteers to make this an ongoing program. It’s off to a great start, and the feedback so far has been very positive – including the way the team tailored everything to the care-givers’ and stroke victims’ needs.

THI: How did you learn about AARP’s Volunteer Leadership Institute and how did you come to participate in it?

I was nominated by Julie Lee, Vice President and National Director of AARP Driver Safety. After extensive research and a comprehensive interview, I was selected to represent Alabama and Driver Safety. I was eager to be involved in a program that recognized the importance of their volunteers and had a committed team to provide tools to each participant in order to further develop their volunteer skills. I am also passionate about Driver Safety and welcomed the opportunity to network with such outstanding volunteers in order to promote the importance of safe driving through several programs sponsored by AARP.

SK: What changes did you make in your work from learning the Harwood approach?

More than ever, I firmly believe in the importance of thinking outward and having meaningful community conversations. I use the Harwood techniques to help other people collect and use knowledge and understanding about their communities so that they know what their community feels is important in terms of their aspirations. I also use the tools I’ve learned to help others in their decision processes. I focus more deeply on the reality of people’s lives and look at each situation holistically, understanding how each decision will impact each individual. I strive to be accountable, to be responsible for my thoughts and actions and to be aware of the importance of these actions being meaningful and purposeful.

THI: What were your top takeaways from learning the Harwood approach?

The Harwood techniques I learned are now hardwired into the way I work. When new ideas are presented to me for community improvement, whether in my volunteer work or in my job as an occupational therapist, my very first step is to reach out to the community and hold a small-group conversation. The 3As of Public Life are strongly woven into my thinking – I’m always aware of applying Authority, Authenticity and Accountability. Another key takeaway is the importance of thinking outward and striving to engage the key players in the community. I was also intrigued by - and apply daily - the importance of listening; listening to individual aspirations, to understanding people’s concerns and coming to a plan of what we can do and who we believe can achieve those goals.

SK: How has the Harwood training changed your own approach to the work you do?

I have a stronger voice in sharing with community leaders the importance of understanding their community. I also strive to build strong, innovative teams that can think outward, build new relationships and help others become trusted leaders dedicated to making changes their communities need and desire vs. changes “we” feel are important. Whether I am conducting meetings as Director of Therapy at Crestwood Medical Center or as a volunteer for AARP Driver Safety (among other groups), I will continue to grow and develop skills in applying the Harwood tools.