Jane Ondrusek played Christmas carols, Broadway standards and pop on a digital piano and baby grand. She raised her eyes from the keys to glance at a visitor and smile, basking in the attention like Liberace.

Jane, along with colleagues Mark Steidl and Helenka Foley, was hired recently by The Woodlands Foundation to help participants at its campus in the Wexford area. Jane and Mark provide music enrichment, and Helenka helps supervise and entertain the children. On this day in November, Jane was accompanying the Music Ensemble choir in rehearsal for a concert.

“I love being staff,” Ondrusek said.

Jane Ondrusek provides music enrichment as a paid employee of The Woodlands Foundation. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

Jane, Mark and Helenka all grew up in the program, and their hiring has been heralded as essential for representing the people the organization serves — children and adults with disabilities and chronic illnesses. But their hiring also symbolizes the long journey the country has taken in placing employees with disabilities front and center in the workplace.

“So many of these participants started coming to The Woodlands as children, teenagers, and now they’re coming with so many skills and perspectives on life,” said Kristen Link, director of music and the arts for The Woodlands. “It’s not just what we have to offer them. It’s about what they have to offer us at The Woodlands and the community at large.”

A second home

Secluded on 52 acres in the North Hills, The Woodlands provides a haven to explore new skills and independence.

“It’s a safe place to call home,” said Alicia Rose, 26, of Cranberry. She has been coming to The Woodlands since 2009.

“I enjoy coming here because I can be myself,” she said after playing guitar and the ukulele for the ensemble. “I don’t feel like I have a disability when I’m here.”

The Woodlands Foundation Music Ensemble rehearses Christmas songs during a rehearsal on Nov. 1. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

Teri Owens, 41, of Brentwood has been going to The Woodlands, her second home, about 10 years. She uses an electric wheelchair and speaks through an electronic communication device. During a rehearsal of the ensemble, her favorite activity, she rhythmically beat a wooden tray with a drumstick illuminated with a blue tip. 

“She can express herself with music,” her mother, Robin Owens, wrote in an email.

In early November, the foliage of maples, oaks and other trees burst into shades of red, yellow, orange and green. Many of The Woodlands’ buildings are painted white, with kelly green trim — simple and rustic – not distracting from the beauty of nature. 

“I enjoy coming here because I can be myself. I don’t feel like I have a disability when I’m here.”

Alicia Rose, 26, of Cranberry

The Woodlands began in 1937 as a camp for underprivileged youths and orphans. More than 40 years later, The Spina Bifida Association of Western Pennsylvania launched a camp there.

In 1985, the land became known as The Woodlands, and its reach expanded to people with other disabilities and chronic illnesses. In 1998, the late Dr. Don Reigel, a pediatric neurosurgeon at the Children’s Hospital, founded The Woodlands Foundation, which broke away from the spina bifida group. 

With a $2 million annual budget, The Woodlands offers summer camps, clubs and retreats to about 600 children and adults. The participants swim in its heated pool, play golf, try their hand at archery or speed down a zip line — activities adapted for those with disabilities. They also create art, sing songs and play instruments.

Participants here do not age out of programs as they do elsewhere. Children may start attending at age 6. One person who recently showed up was in their 70s.

Once unadoptable, now unwavering

In 1995, Ken and Beth Ondrusek traveled to Moscow to adopt a baby. They brought back from the orphanage 11-month old Jane, an infant they said had been deemed “unadoptable.”

American doctors diagnosed her with autism, attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity. She did not talk until her fourth birthday when she said “ma.” Since then, her mother said with a laugh, she hasn’t stopped chattering.

Growing up, she had trouble behaving in class, said Jane, now 27, of Economy, Beaver County. “If I wasn’t listening, I would have to go to another room,” she said.

But music calmed her fits. At age 10, she begged her mother through tears for piano lessons. Her mother doubted she could sit still for the half-hour lesson. But her daughter not only sat for the lesson, she identified every key on the piano just by hearing the sound.

“Oh, my God,” her mother said she remembered thinking, “we have a little prodigy.”

At a recital when she was about 11, Jane stopped playing and admonished the audience to be quiet. At the end of her performances, she would take bow after bow.

Jane began attending The Woodlands when she was 18. Unsurprisingly, her favorite activity is playing the piano. Now she is paid to do it.

“Jane instantly lights up a room. She makes everybody smile. I’ve learned more about determination from Jane than probably anybody else I’ve come across.” 

Kory Antonacci, who leads the Music Ensemble

Kory Antonacci, who leads the Music Ensemble, credits Jane for her zest and for learning all the repertoires for the choral group. 

“Jane instantly lights up a room,” Antonacci said. “She makes everybody smile. I’ve learned more about determination from Jane than probably anybody else I’ve come across.” 

Beth Ondrusek said the job makes her daughter feel “like a big shot.” 

“She’s watched her cousins drive, go on dates and get married,” her mother said. “This has instilled something in her life that’s not going to go away.”

One in four adults

Nationally, the trend of hiring people with disabilities started around 20 years ago but has intensified in the last five years, said Lawrence Carter-Long. He is communications director for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund and director of the Disability and Media Alliance Project, both civil rights groups for people with disabilities based in Berkeley, Calif.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61 million Americans or one in four adults in the United States live with a disability. The most common is having serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs.

“If you’re making decisions that affect disabled people’s lives, disabled people need to be a part of that,” said Carter-Long, who has cerebral palsy.

But those with disabilities are finding it harder to stay in the workplace after the onset of coronavirus. Although about 80% of adults with disabilities do not work, the jobless rate for those who do grew from 7.3% in 2019 to 12.6% in 2020, according to a study released earlier this year by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the same period, the unemployment rate for those without a disability increased from 3.5% to 7.9%.

“If you’re making decisions that affect disabled people’s lives, disabled people need to be a part of that.” 

Lawrence Carter-Long

Nationally, a coalition of disability groups is supporting the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, a bill introduced two years ago in Congress that would phase out certificates that allow employers to pay subminimum wages to people with disabilities, many of whom work in sheltered workshops 

“This system tells Americans with disabilities and it tells their families and the people who love and support them, that you’re not worth the same as other Americans,” said Tom Ridge during a November 2019 meeting before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He is chairman of the National Organization on Disability and former governor of Pennsylvania.

In support of this movement, recently hired Executive Director Samantha Ellwood and Link are helping The Woodlands Foundation reimagine its future after COVID with a new strategic plan and master plan. Ellwood said the organization would like to hire more participants to get a better idea of what kind of activities the people it serves would like. 

“When they see their peers leading the programs, they see themselves,” Ellwood said.

Role model

Mark Steidl sat on a babysitter’s lap as a toddler and explored the piano. Born with cerebral palsy, Mark learned to speak and sing with an electronic communication device and compose music on the computer.

“I couldn’t live without music and the arts,” said Mark, now 26, of Highland Park.

At age 5, Mark went with a babysitter to see the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra perform a concert geared to young children. One of its conductors then, Lucas Richman, invited Mark to The Woodlands where he served on the faculty.

Mark Steidl learned to speak and sing with an electronic device and composes music with a computer. (Courtesy photo)

Mark’s mother, Tina Calabro, praised The Woodlands’ music program.

Traditionally, she said, children with disabilities have been regarded as recipients of musical entertainment rather than creators, but not at The Woodlands.

“The Woodlands has enabled Mark to grow in his love of music and his ability to create and perform and teach music,” she said.

As assistant teacher for the virtual Music Makers class at The Woodlands, Mark presents a music appreciation lesson about genres such as country, jazz, Broadway and pop. The lesson plans define the genre, offer examples and arrange guest speakers while allowing participants to interact.

Antonacci described Mark as a skilled musical producer and a brilliant writer of lesson plans and scripts for productions and concerts. She praised Mark’s fearlessness in challenging people in new and unfamiliar ways.

Participants “look up to me as their role model,” Mark said, “and I hope they will have the opportunity to be employed.” 

Dream job

Adopted with two brothers from an orphanage in Poland, Helenka Foley was bullied at school in the United States.

She was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity. “I can’t sit still very long,” she said with a laugh. “I have to keep on moving or I get very antsy.”

Students sometimes pushed her against a wall, giving her panic attacks. Someone on Facebook called her a cow and said she should go to Jenny Craig. Helenka skipped school for a couple days after that.

Helenka, 28, of New Sewickley in Beaver County, recounted this taunting matter-of-factly. “I’m stronger now,” she said.

Helenka Foley taking part in a self-empowerment activity at a camp retreat in fall 2019. (Photo courtesy of The Woodlands)

She began going to The Woodlands in fifth grade. When she’s there, she said, it’s as if her disability disappears.

“When Helenka walks into the room, the kids light up and call her name and cheer,” said her mother, Susie Foley.

Helenka said the counselors are understanding and friendly. “They’re not there to judge you,” she said. “The Woodlands is my second home.”

The nonprofit hired her as an assistant for the Cub Club, its entry program for children 6 to 12 years old. The club offers art, music, games, swimming, food and a chance to play with other youngsters.

Her job is to make sure the children are having fun. She gets the crafts and snacks out, helps the youngsters use the bathroom or wash their hands.

Clarissa Amond, whose son Gregory has spina bifida, works there as program manager. “I don’t think one person who meets Helenka doesn’t love her,” she said. “Her laugh is contagious. She enjoys being a role model.”

Helenka someday wants to open a childcare facility for those with disabilities. She sees her work with the Cub Club as helping her to achieve that goal.

“This is my dream job,” she said. 

Bill Zlatos is a freelance reporter in Ross. He can be reached at billzlatos@gmail.com.

This story was fact-checked by Linden Markley.

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