Volunteer watchdog role means regular appointment with county
WILLMAR -- For the last 40 years Sandy Schlosser has been an advocate for people with disabilities.
That role has included taking the voluntary sentinel post in the Kandiyohi County board room to make sure the policies and programs approved by the commissioners are good for the people she unofficially represents.
Knowing that the job of an advocate is never done, Schlosser has rarely missed a meeting during the last 20 years.
"I know somebody needs to be there," said Schlosser, of Willmar. "I don't get tired of it. I want to keep going. ... It's never a waste of time."
The vigil happens on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, as the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners conducts the family service committee meeting. By 9 a.m. Schlosser has taken a chair in the audience in board room.
With a travel mug of hot coffee by her side, she settles in to listen to reports, requests and contracts offered to the commissioners by the county's family services staff.
Occasionally she'll raise her hand, politely ask permission to speak and then direct a pointed question about a proposed policy or express grave concern about a potential program change.
She may ask for details about a rate increase and then ask the commissioners to consider the impact such a change will have on people who are not there speak up for themselves.
Schlosser keeps the commissioners on their toes -- mostly in a nice way. She said she's apologized a few times for things she's said at meetings. Occasionally she's gotten angry.
"I just know there has to be representation by people who are affected by what they're voting on," said Schlosser, a retired home economics teacher. "The need is very real to me, so I just keep going."
Jay Kieft, director of Kandiyohi County Family Services, called Schlosser the "consummate advocate."
Her perspective is welcome, needed and appreciated, he said. "It's one way for us to make sure we're on track with the policies we make and the priorities we develop."
County Board Chairman Dennis Peterson said he doesn't always agree with Schlosser. But her desire to understand the system and her role as an advocate is appreciated. "There are probably more people that should take an interest," he said.
Schlosser, who said she falls somewhere between a "county government groupie and a government watchdog," never thought life would present the opportunity for her to play such a role.
"There's nothing like pain to energize you or sensitize you," said Schlosser. "People who have felt that, have got to be messengers."
As a parent with her husband, Cliff, of four adult children, including two with developmental disabilities, Schlosser is well aware of the pain and struggles families face while fighting for the care of their children.
She decided long ago it would be better to be "part of the process" than to react to decisions made by others.
She initially started attending the twice-a-month family service meetings when she was president of Kandiyohi County Arc, an advocacy organization for individuals with disabilities. But when her term ended, Schlosser kept coming to the county meetings.
"We need to keep reminding people we're there," said Schlosser. She goes to the meetings to help educate herself about issues, to interact with county staff and to connect with the decision-makers who set policies.
Because she has "loved ones who are affected by their decisions," Schlosser said she believes the commissioners may be "more reflective" of what they say and do because she's sitting in the room with them.
Schlosser said it's odd that people concerned about drainage ditches, feedlot expansions, gravel pits and road projects are regular and vocal attendees to county board meetings, but that people who use family services don't usually attend the meetings. She wishes more would.
Kieft said some advocates come to meetings, others are on the phone, attend forums or are involved with nonprofit organizations like Arc. Some advocates are "burrs under the saddle," some are "diplomatic" and others are "persistent" in how they send their message.
"Advocates appear in lots of different venues," said Kieft. "It's appreciated no matter where that is."
"Working to make a change is very healing for a person," said Schlosser, who is not only concerned about her children, but the whole system of care and funding for services for people with disabilities. She has won awards for her past efforts on the local, state and national level to improve legislation and services for people with disabilities.
She has high praise for Kandiyohi County's Commissioners, family service staff and the services available here.
"I think we live in an above-average county and state. I really do," she said. But sometimes the funding stream and decisions on policies can put an end to a successful program. "Once you've lost something, it's very hard to get it back."
By continuing to watch and ask questions, Schlosser is hopeful the programs and the lives of people with disabilities will continue to improve.