30 years of building ACR Homes: “Not a day goes by I’m not filled with gratitude”
In an age when the average American switches jobs 10 to 15 times over the course of a lifetime, Director of Development Deb Nygaard has been a dedicated ACR Homes employee for longer than 30 years.
Once she was hand-picked by CEO Jim Nelson to leave her restaurant management job and join the organization, she quickly realized she was in the right place. And the intrinsic rewards of her work have kept her there through thick and thin.
“It’s knowing I’m a part of helping people live their best lives — and not just people with disabilities, but staff too,” she explains. “I see their young lives changed by this job.”
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Fast track, meaningful career
Nygaard thought she wanted to be a scientist when she earned a B.A. in biology and chemistry, but after college she gravitated instead into other jobs — including stints as a semi driver and manager of a Subway restaurant owned by Nelson. Fate intervened when Nelson snapped her up for a direct care provider job with ACR, which back then owned only two residences.
“I’ve always teased Jim that his super power is staff selection,” she notes. “He finds people who have the character that suits this particular industry and field, and the intelligence.”
Like many new DCPs, Nygaard initially struggled with some of the personal tasks that come with the job. “But the individual won my heart really quickly, and I just persevered,” she remembers. “At some point, you don’t even notice the difficult parts of the job. What I remember with great fondness is the relationship.”
[Learn more about ACR Homes’ mission and philosophy: Acceptance, Communication and Respect]
Another challenge she quickly overcame? Getting past sorrow for clients so she could focus on providing them the happiest, healthiest lives possible.
“There are definitely times I’m sad with the situation,” she notes. “But in rough situations we can make a difference, and that’s really, really meaningful. When a parent calls me and is contemplating placing their child, that’s a painful call to make. If they can talk to me and I’m empathetic and have time to talk it out, that makes a huge impact. Even for the people we can’t serve, I always try to help since I know other industry resources that might be appropriate.”
Nygaard became a live-in supervisor (joined by her husband) six months after joining the company; over the ensuing nine years there they had two children and enjoyed the family relationships that developed with clients. After that, she worked in the HR department upgrading data security and developing the firm’s first staff training system. In 1989, she was promoted to director of development.
These days, she’s the first point of contact for prospective residents and their families. Her job also involves building community relationships, promoting ACR at events and making strategic housing assignments.
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Big challenges, exceptional rewards
One of the frustrating parts of her job is a state moratorium setting a quota for statewide residential care homes that prevents the opening of new, higher-quality facilities to meet demand. “(That) artificially keeps poor providers afloat,” she explains. “With no other option, families often have to take an open bed that’s three hours away.”
For that reason, ACR maintains a waiting list of more than 200 potential residents at any given time, even though it’s already established a significant 58 homes in Minnesota. And Nygaard has the heart-wrenching job of figuring out who can be accepted next for openings, based on the applicants’ challenges and the existing mix of residents in each home. Telling families “not this time” can be emotionally draining because of their reactions.
“I make people cry every day of my life,” she notes. “But they’re still on my waiting list, and I try to explain that when we find the right match, it will be worth the wait. In the long run, we want to take care of their child for life.”
The most joyful part of her job? When a new resident adjusts so comfortably that his or her family members are able to take their first worry-free vacation in years. “They trust us enough to leave,” she says. “I absolutely love it.”
She’s also proud of ACR’s comprehensive training program that enables DCPs to learn valuable medical and care procedures they’d never learned as hospital CNAs. “We hire bright, young, motivated, intelligent, kind people … the bar is set high,” she notes. “And this is the most supported environment I’ve ever worked in. It’s amazing what our young people are empowered to do.”
Nygaard attributes ACR’s long-term success to the ability of founders Jim and Dorothy Nelson to adapt to new challenges through the years.
“They never roll over and say, ‘This is too hard, we don’t know what we’re going to do.’ The words ‘This is how we’ve always done it in the past’ don’t exist in their vocabulary. They’re always looking to do things differently, more relevantly, as regulations and licensing and staffing and the demographics of our target employees change.”
Despite her long and accomplished career, Nygaard says she has no plans to retire — and in fact has initiated a wager with Jim Nelson as to who will retire first.
“The gauntlet is thrown,” she laughs. “There’s no way I’m retiring before him.”
Interested in making a difference and beginning a meaningful career at ACR Homes? Contact us to learn more.