My name is Cheryl Brunsmann. I was born in 1961 and raised south of Belleville IL. The farm I was raised on is almost directly across from Belleville West High School. I’m the youngest of thirteen children. I always say that I give my mom credit, or blame her, for my love and passion for working with senior citizens. As the youngest child, my mom put me on the school bus to go to kindergarten, around the same time, renewed her nursing license and went back to work part-time as a registered nurse in a nursing home. I grew up around seniors. When there was an opportunity to see the Easter Bunny, or do an Easter egg hunt, or to see Santa Claus, it was at the nursing home where my mom worked. I went to St Mary’s Catholic school in Belleville from kindergarten through eighth grade, then on to Belleville West High School. My very first job, when I was sixteen, was at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, at the apartment community. It’s now called The Esquiline. I moved from the apartment community over to the main restaurant when I went to college. When I was a senior in high school my brother, just thirteen months older than me, was killed in a car accident. Of course, that tragedy definitely changed some of my direction. I had already been accepted to the University of Illinois, had my housing taken care of, had done all my placement tests. The summer before I was to start college, my parents approached me and asked me to reconsider. Instead of going to a large university, they asked me to consider a small liberal arts school. So, I checked out several smaller schools around Illinois and Missouri and ended up getting my undergraduate degree from Fontbonne, in Clayton MO. I lived there and did very well. I earned my undergraduate degree in Human Services, which is basically the same as Social Work, graduated in 3 1/2 years in 1982. I still have lifelong friends I made at Fontbonne. I accepted my first professional job in Mount Carmel, IL, as Director of an employment and training program called the Senior AIDES Program, working with lower income seniors that maybe were displaced homemakers or had lost jobs. It was funded through the Department of Labor as part of the Older Americans Act of the Department on Aging. Our funding source at that time was called the National Council of Senior Citizens. I moved to Mount Carmel. I lived there for 2 1/2 half years.
From there I actually moved to the Washington DC area and worked at the National Council of Senior Citizens fulltime for a year, and then as a consultant for an additional year. I worked in downtown DC, just a couple blocks from the White House, and lived in Springfield VA. While I was there my title was Program Representative, overseeing ten projects that provided the same Senior AIDES Projects. I was a “Program Auditor”, to help make sure they were following federal regulations. My territory was in upper state New York, Massachusetts, and West Virginia. I’d be in the office one-week doing the planning and traveling the following week.
While I was there, I met my first husband. For the first couple of weeks of our marriage, I commuted between DC and New Hampshire. It wasn’t difficult because four of my projects were in Massachusetts, not a difficult drive from New Hampshire. We lived in New Hampshire for a year.
I delivered my daughter Brittany, who will be 33 this year. I quit my fulltime job and did some consulting work. Brittany spent some time with me in DC, when she was about six months old. We took breaks from meetings based on when Brittany needed a diaper changed or needed to be fed! My husband had lost his job in December of 1986, so we were struggling financially. I was only doing a little consulting work at the time. After not finding anything for several months, I said: “you can be unemployed in Illinois as well as you can in New Hampshire”. We went back to Belleville in April of 1987. I had better contacts in Illinois, where my personal network was. Also, I was the youngest sibling and lived the furthest away from our hometown. The twelve of us kids are all in the same general area now. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, so I stayed home for a short time. We had our second child, Aaron, in December of 1987.
My mom and dad were redoing the farmhouse that I grew up in. Dad had moved there in 1926 when he was seven years old. He was the second of ten kids. He and mom married in 1946. He bought the 80-acre farm from his parents and that was where we were all raised. My dad was a farmer for much of his life. The second oldest brother took up the family farming, after graduating from the University of Illinois with an Agricultural degree. He just turned 70 this year. My dad eventually became a real estate broker, focusing only on farmland, covering most of southern Illinois.
He had always said, “One commodity you can’t make more of, is land!” He passed away in 2011, and my mom died in 2008. When my son Aaron was 11 months old (in 1988), my mom had a massive stroke. She had retired in 1988 at the age of 65 and wanted to remodel the farmhouse. So, my kids and I spent (sometimes) 4 or 5 days a week with her, helping get things moved around and cleaning the house. She hired an interior designer. Mom taught me how to do the farm books. I was able to do a lot of things with her. In November of that year, she had the stroke. She lived for almost twenty more years, but was completely paralyzed on her right side. Her speech was very limited. She lived at home for her entire life. My sister Debi, a physical therapist, took care of both parents, allowing them to stay in their home. Toward the end, Debi and her husband moved into the house to provide full-time care. I also have a special needs sister, Mary Kay, who is 69, and now lives with my sister and her husband in Belleville.
HOW DID I END UP WHERE I AM TODAY?
As I mentioned earlier, my first professional job was working with seniors, and while working in Mount Carmel, at a conference in Houston, I met the local Senior AIDES Program Director for PSOP, Madeline Simpson. Also at that conference was the original Director of PSOP, Gene Verdu. That’s when I first learned about PSOP. I said to myself, if I ever move back to Belleville, that’s the place to work. After mom had her stroke, and my husband had found a fulltime job, I went to work part-time at Schnuck’s in January of 1989, for 3 ½ years, at night. That fit well for our family at that time. In July of 1993 I saw an ad for a part-time position at PSOP, working in Activities. In March of 1994, a new grant became available, a partnership between the Area Agency on Aging, PSOP, St. Clair County Housing Authority and SIUE (Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville). The grant is still in existence and has evolved. Back then it was called the Senior Housing Ombudsman Program. The whole emphasis was to allow seniors who were living in public housing to be able to maintain their independence, for longer than otherwise. I was the initial Director for that new program. I hired the staff, we set up an office, and developed forms. A couple of months later, the Director position at Senior AIDES Program (which used to be at PSOP) became available. I went to Genu Verdu and said “You know, that’s probably the position I belong in, but I don’t know how it would look to you, and the hiring committee, for me to take my third job in less than a year. He said, if you don’t apply for the position, I’m going to be angry” And so I applied for the position and became the Director of the Senior AIDES Program. In the meantime, I had gone through a divorce. I wasn’t making a whole lot of money, but was working full time, and still working 25 to 30 hours a week at Schnuck’s. Shortly after the divorce, I quit the job at Schnuck’s because I needed to be home with my kids. I became aware of a position available at SIUE. The main responsibility of that position was to run the Senior Olympics. SIUE used to host the Senior Olympic Games. Working with the games was exciting, but the main reason for me to switch jobs was for the increased salary, to help me as a single mom. I made the switch in March of 1997. The Senior Olympics stayed at SIUE for an additional four years. When the Olympics finished, my job at SIUE grew to include all non-credit classes, and I loved that. But my true passion remained with working with senior citizens. We did Lifelong Learning, and when I first took over that position we had an eight week program in the spring, called Great Decisions. They determined the annual topics. We had that program every spring and also had a 12 week program that included various topics. Topics could be anything age-related, or something like the takeover of the Middle East. More about the Lifelong Learning program… at SIUE the whole purpose of Lifelong Learning is, for me, “just because you reach a certain age doesn’t mean you’re incapable of learning”. It’s been statistically proven that whether we’re doing a brain game on a phone or laptop, or just learning new things, improves our mental and physical health. By the time I left SIUE, we were doing 75 to 90 programs a year, most of them at SIUE. We had a relationship with Main Street Community Center (in Edwardsville, IL) where we were doing several programs a month, one during the day and one in the evening. We had a relationship with Meridian Village (Glen Carbon IL) where we were doing programs once a month, and an occasional program at Eden Village (Edwardsville, IL). It’s primarily older folks, mostly retired, who just want to keep their minds active. Some people will come regardless of what the topic is, others pick and choose. With the regulars, you can count on the same twenty or so people every week. They decided, regardless of the topic (from Engineering to Hieroglyphics), they just need to get out of the house to keep their brain active. Some of the speakers are retired professors, and a lot are current professors. Community speakers are included, as well. Each speaker talks about topics of their own passion.
WHAT INSPIRES ME THE MOST ABOUT MY POSITION AT PSOP?
Everybody has a story. I still have a goal of helping seniors tell their stories. The people who visit us probably get up with aches and pains, maybe loneliness. But they get up and get out. I want to learn more about their stories. They have so much wisdom. They inspire me. My staff inspires me. They are hard workers that rarely say “that’s not my job”. The staff inspires me to stay even through the difficult days. I can’t imagine leaving such a caring, dedicated professional group. But it’s the senior’s that bring me here every day. As much as I love my two grandchildren (two and eight years old now), and I love them with all my heart, I can’t imagine spending all day, every day with a room full of two-year-old’s! My son is a high school teacher and as much as I love one-on-one time with young people, I could not spend my day doing that. People ask me “How can you work with old people all day?” I’m thinking how can I not. A lot of office work to do every day, but I thoroughly enjoy visiting with people, to see how their day is going, and experiencing their joy for life. I want to be just like them when I grow up!!
Cheryl Biver Brunsmann
Executive Director, Community Education / PSOP
Southwestern Illinois College
201 North Church Street
Belleville, IL 62220