When Puzzle Pieces won Nonprofit Organization of the Year at the Chamber’s annual celebration, it was an “aha moment” for Executive Director Amanda Owen — a moment to see the scope of work she and her staff had accomplished.
Puzzle Pieces, which opened six years ago, started as an activity center designed to serve individuals with intellectual disabilities.
“I have a brother with special needs and that’s kind of the passion of why we opened,” Owen said. “I was a special ed teacher and took a leap of faith, seeing a need in the community.”
The organization continues to identify community needs and rise up to meet them. They serve nearly 130 clients and the day center has grown into four divisions: Puzzle Pieces, Employment Opportunities, Centerpiece and Residential.
Each division is its own entity, requiring a director to oversee staffing and the growth of that area. The directors are a celebration of women in leadership, each with different backgrounds, but one common mission.
Puzzle Pieces – Program Director Kelly Harper
Harper was an assistant in Owen’s special education classroom and said the two just saw eye-to-eye about how to treat individuals.
“When she told me her idea of Puzzle Pieces I was like, ‘Yes, I’m all for it!'” Harper said, adding that the two did their research before opening. “We met with a lot of families and it was really eye-opening to see the need of just, what do they do when they’re not in school? I think our community has gotten better, but there wasn’t a place where care could be individualized.”
Harper jokes that she spends most of her day talking, but that talking is between case managers, caregivers and staff, discussing what works best for each client. Not to mention training a new group of leaders.
“We’ve been focusing on how to lead others,” she said. “We (the directors) are inspired and motivated, but we have to get everyone else on board.” With 60 staff on the payroll, Harper said that’s “a lot of self-development and knowing that we all have things to work on.”
Each director acts as human resources for their department, so Harper does all of the on-boarding, training, interviewing and coaching on how to work together.
She’s found her place at Puzzle Pieces.
“I’d tell young girls to make sure you’re following the right people,” she said. “I’ve worked a lot of places and it just wasn’t the right fit. I knew I had more to give. When you’re young, so many things happen that seem like the end of the world, but it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you move past them.”
Employment Opportunities – Director Blaire Neighbors
Headed by director Blaire Neighbors, Employment Opportunities is not your average job placement service. The organization focuses on matching disabled individuals with a career where they can shine, rather than just finding a job opening.
“We’re trying to find something they’re genuinely interested in, that meets their strengths and weaknesses,” she said.
Neighbors, who comes from a special education teaching background as well, met Owen while working at Puzzle Pieces in college. Having a brother with disabilities also, the two bonded over shared experiences.
“We just always had a big connection,” Neighbors said. “She told me about this new division and that she thought it would be a great fit and that it was a huge need in Owensboro and the surrounding counties. So I came on board in December.”
The division has already placed eight individuals with positions and has ten more on the waiting list.
“We just keep on getting them,” Neighbors said. “I think that’s because want to make it work as a career for our clients, not just a job. We want it to be meaningful.”
Not only are they working with the client, but they’re also working with employers.
“That’s a huge piece to it,” she said. “They understand the needs their employee may have and they can make modifications, but they can refer to us for support. It’s a team effort.”
The group has also started the Coalition for Workforce Diversity, which meets bi-monthly to act as a forum for employers to discuss what’s worked for them, what issues they have, and what fears they may be facing.
Centerpiece and Residential, Director Quincy Tutt
At the helm of Centerpiece and the Residential division is Quincy Tutt.
Centerpiece is an adult day training site, where individuals get job training and learn skills after high school like how to go out to eat with friends or schedule vacations. Residential is all about making a home for them.
Tutt came in to interview at Puzzle Pieces as a direct support professional six years ago, and Owen remembers it well.
“She had no background experience of working with people with disabilities,” Owen said. “But, I remember thinking that she comes from a military background, and just thinking, you have to have some grit to you to be in the military.”
Owen soon saw that Tutt was asking all the right questions and wanting to know more about her role. That’s when Owen realized they’d created another leader who could run an additional site with the same passion and dedication she had for Puzzle Pieces.
They spent two weeks together and built the Centerpiece program from the ground up. The program started with 13 clients, and the uncertainty of board members.
“You kind of have to make believers out of people,” Owen said. “And that’s how we do everything, if you build it, they’ll come.”
They now have 44 clients, with a waiting list of 12, and are gaining interest from the state in how their programming works.
Tutt is also over residential, which provides housing and 24-hour care for clients.
“We had some families who needed care for their loved ones, and housing wasn’t what we were going to do, but they were missing just being home,” Owen said.
Puzzle PIeces now offers a trained staff and has started providing housing and 24-hour care for three people that were in otherwise negative situations.
Business Director Kathy Hempel
Hempel is the sounding board for all these ideas – researching all the legalities, paperwork and procedures that need to be done.
Her daughter was one of Owen’s students, so when the organization launched, the former office manager was ready to help.
“We started with a donated copy of QuickBooks, and here we are,” Hempel said. “I’ve learned, in six years, how to roll with the punches. There’s always a way to do it. It may not be black and white, but we’ll get there.”
Owen credits the success of Puzzle Pieces to this strong group of leaders within the organization.
“You can’t coach passion, and you can’t coach drive. Everyone’s had the heart and the grind to buy into our mission. We put so much heart into everything,” she said. “Their (the client’s) failures are our failures and their victories are our victories. It’s more than just a job for all of us.”