By NANCY G. HOLMAN

Special to The Hays Daily News

It was 1993, and Pam Spohn was job-hunting after finishing an 11-year stint as a Social and Rehabilitation Services food stamp caseworker. SRS is now called Division of Children and Families, or DCF.

"My mom saw an ad for SKIL in a weekly newspaper that came out of Chanute," said Spohn, then 39 and living in Fredonia. "I wasn't working, so I needed to find a job."

SKIL is a multi-faceted independent living center that serves persons with disabilities in Kansas. Headquartered in Parsons, it has branch offices at various other locations in the state, including Hays.

Spohn was hired for the Parsons front office, beginning a wide-ranging, memorable career that would span 22 years. She retired recently from the popular independent living center that, by her own admission, she cannot long avoid.

Recalling her long career as SKIL's first employee after returning as a volunteer, Spohn reflected on the agency and its people she has served with her own brand of unswerving dedication, loyalty and love.

"I met with SKIL's founders at our first location on 1817 Crawford St., and they hired me," Spohn said. "After interviewing with them, I caught their vision, to empower those with disabilities at all levels. I was hired on in February 1993. When the doors first opened, I was it except for the executive director, who wasn't actually hired until later in February. We opened the doors March 1."

Spohn worked in a secretarial capacity, answering the phones, setting up files, taking care of customers when they came into the office, "a little bit of everything," she said. A few months later other employees Curtis Dougherty and Ed Metcalf joined her, forming the initial staff of the new agency along with the executive director.

Spohn, ever-ready at the front reception desk, quickly became the persona of SKIL. For many years, she was the first face people saw when they visited, or the first voice they heard when they telephoned. Reminiscent of a hospital triage nurse, Spohn first obtained basic information, then directed consumers where to get help.

"A lot of my job was just letting people know who we were," she said. "We got lots of phone calls: 'Who are you? What do you do?' We were the new kid on the block. Back in the beginning, we were very basic. We helped people with disabilities stay in their own homes and did what we could to bring that about with care attendants, etc. It wasn't until much later that we got into specialized assistive equipment."

Spohn, who has disabilities herself, was a natural fit for the new non-profit social services agency.

"I'm a person with disabilities because of my hearing loss and my size, 4 foot, 6 inches," she said. "I was attracted to the job partly because of my own disabilities and also needed a job."

Often, Spohn ran SKIL by herself, wearing a variety of hats to ensure customers received the services they needed.

"Lots of times, I was the only one here because the guys would be out in the community," she said. "I always enjoyed the consumers when they came in, visiting with them and finding out their stories, how they became disabled, making them feel welcome: 'We're not here to judge you, come on in!'

"I always had a good rapport with our customers and saw them as individuals," she said. "Some were born with their disabilities, others acquired their disabilities along the way. They didn't need to be looked down upon, as no one does. It's only by the grace of God that anyone makes it through life without a disability."

Though short of stature, Spohn became a proverbial giant to the local disability community, quietly but powerfully advocating for people with disabilities, impassioned by their needs.

"We empowered them," she said, "providing the tools they needed to help live better lives. Part of that came from independent living skills training and our other core services of individual and systems advocacy, information/referral services, peer support and later, deinstitutionalization. We helped customers learn how to manage better."

Spohn has fond memories of SKIL's successes in providing that help. She witnessed one individual's remarkable transition, from years of unhappy institutionalization without much hope of ever living on her own, to successfully living independently today in an apartment and working in the community.

"She's very proud of what's happened to her," Spohn said. "Our Advocacy Director Greg Jones and the SKIL team helped get her out. She's still trying to get used to being on her own. She functions very well on her own."

Sometimes just being involved with the agency was a strong impetus for people with disabilities to take steps to improve their lives, whether they were clients or staff or both, Spohn said. She shared in the joy of Curtis Dougherty, a quadriplegic who was the second employee hired after her, when he obtained a van. The vehicle enabled him to transport himself instead of being dependent on his family for rides. Dougherty remains employed at SKIL, as an independent living coordinator.

Through the years, Spohn remained a strong presence, listening with the compassion that only comes from being a person with disabilities herself and offering lasting encouragement to those seeking better lives as they struggled to move forward, often without much help other than the agency.

"There's a lot of satisfaction in seeing customers being able to achieve independence," she said. "It's been a joy to share in their stories, the successes they've had in their lives. Sometimes all that was needed was a little guidance and direction, not to do it for them, but to give them the tools they needed to do it on their own."

Why remain at SKIL instead of returning to a state government job or seeking other horizons?

"Because I believe in what they're doing," said Spohn, who has a bachelor's degree in sociology from Mid-America Nazarene College in Olathe. "And, being a person with disabilities myself, I see the need. And I like the interaction with the public. I've met a lot of different people over the years, met a lot of dignitaries. In my later years there, SRS (now DCF) ended up helping people more on paper than giving a personal touch. People need that."

Spohn has served in various capacities during her SKIL career, including front-desk receptionist, an independent living coordinator position that involved travel to deal with customers, working with another staff in human resources, working in customer records, doing intake for new services and her last position, an administrative assistant.

"I've about done it all," she said.

For about 10 years, Spohn also served as SKIL's representative on KRSi, the Kansas Relay Service Inc. Advisory Council, travelling to different cities for meetings, representing people with hearing loss and Southeast Kansas.

She has witnessed much change and growth during her tenure.

"Part of what kept me here, I was able to be on the ground floor, to see the business grow," she said. "I've seen a lot of changes: the progress we've done, the branch offices, we've changed locations three times."

Spohn noted that SKIL is now a large business due to steady expansion, with branch offices in Columbus, Chanute, Fredonia, Hays, Independence, Pittsburg and Sedan. SKIL also owns and operates SKIL Media, including two radio stations.

Nancy G. Holman, a nationally published freelance writer, works at the SKIL Resource Center in Parsons.