Schelly retires after 30 years of supporting people with disabilities

Story by Diana Purtz

Cathy Schelly

Believing that all people, regardless of age, abilities or challenges should have a shot at living life to the best of their abilities with the support they need to be successful has influenced Cathy Schelly’s amazing career at the Center for Community Partnerships in the Department of Occupational Therapy. After 30 successful years at Colorado State University and helping make CCP what it is today, Schelly retired in early June.

Pat Sample, professor and former co-director of CCP, describes the life force that Schelly exudes by saying, “Her office had a buzzing sound that emanated from it at all times. It was a force field of energy, imagination, hope, discovery and love of people.”

CSU OT student

Schelly began her journey at CSU as an occupational therapy student in the 1970s. In that time period, segregation for people with disabilities was considered the norm. Schelly says, “The idea of segregation was to prepare people for eventual independence, employment and community participation. It was called ‘readiness training.’ The problem was no one was ever really ‘ready.’ This training wasn’t working. Not only were people with disabilities deemed as ‘not ready,’ our society was ‘not ready’ to fully accept individuals with disabilities.”

After graduation, Schelly’s first job was at a local nonprofit as a parent education coordinator. She enjoyed her work in helping Hispanic grandmothers who were living alone and feeling isolated build community. Also, she supported young mothers in preparing their children for school. Around this time, Schelly started her own family and chose to stay home with her children.

As her children grew and legislative initiatives were promoting integration and community employment for people with disabilities, Schelly knew that it was time to continue her occupational therapy journey. Individuals who had been deemed as “too disabled” to live independently, participate in the community or work were exiting institutions and getting real jobs. “And I was chomping at the bit to go back to work,” Schelly recalls.

‘Visionary leadership’

After applying to work with a new grant through CSU-OT entitled “Transition to Community Employment,” she was hired on as a transition specialist. Schelly supported men and women who had been in segregated settings their whole lives and helped them find integrated employment and participate in the community. “I loved it,” Schelly says.

The grant supported the growth of what is now CCP. Schelly grew with it, becoming a direct service coordinator, then co-director and finally the director, a position she has held for the last 25 years. “She could pump out more work in one morning than most people can accomplish in a week! And she made it look exceedingly easy and fun!” Sample says.

“Her visionary leadership helped shape practice related to service, education and research and profoundly touched the lives of countless people with disabilities,” says Julia Kothe, assistant director of CCP. “Schelly leaves a legacy built on the importance of providing community-based services to individuals with disabilities and collaborating with community partners in an effort to always be at the forefront of addressing the current, most relevant needs of these individuals in employment, education and daily living.”

Some of the many programs Schelly has built, contributed to, or supported through her role at CCP include Opportunities for Postsecondary Success, New Start for Student Veterans, Supported Employment, Project Search, the Bridge Program and the Empowerment Course. Also, Schelly has been active in building partnerships with local school districts, the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Veterans Affairs, the Division for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the Workforce Center, as well as offices across the university.

As the years have gone by, the CCP has become an occupational therapy and social work student fieldwork site. “We are conducting research on our interventions, goal attainment scaling, self-advocacy skill development and on the efficacy of our services. We are publishing our work and contributing to evidence-based practice. We are focusing on doing — on supporting people with disabilities and guiding them as they achieve success,” explains Schelly.

CCP a national leader

In operation since 1985, the CCP serves as a leader in Colorado and nationally on topics related to disability. In 2014 Schelly was honored as a Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association for her incredible work in community practice.

“Look how far we have come,” said Schelly. “We started in the 1970s with individuals with disabilities being segregated at school and living in institutional settings. And now in the 2000s they are going to college! Veterans with serious injuries are entering civilian life, graduating from college and going on to fulfilling careers.”

Now, retired from CSU, Schelly is moving on to some of her favorite occupations and doing some things that have been on the back burner, including piano, tennis, basketball, biking, writing, spoiling her grandchildren, traveling and being politically involved.

“Cathy Schelly is an exceptional person and professional, and I feel privileged to have worked with her and to call her my friend,” says Kothe. Department Head Anita Bundy adds, “She is so much a part of the fabric of CCP and the Department of Occupational Therapy that I can hardly imagine either without her. She will be sorely missed.”

The Center for Community Partnerships is a service, outreach and practice outreach arm of Department of Occupational Therapy, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.