MICHIGAN CITY – One of the city's chief advocates for the rights of the disabled will be leaving soon to take a position with a non-profit that advocates for the same cause in Indianapolis.
But Joanne Tedesco said the decision to leave Michigan City had nothing to do with her career – it was all about her daughter.
"I am a Christian woman and I felt a stirring in my soul, and my husband did too," she said Thursday. "I've been driving to South Bend every day to take my daughter to a place where they can provide services."
Madelyn, 10, is autistic, and while Tedesco said there are some "great people involved in providing services" in Michigan City, there is still a way to go.
"We decided we just couldn't wait because this was for my kid. There are a plethora of opportunities in the Indianapolis area and I wanted her to be part of that community."
For Tedesco, elected to the Michigan City Area Schools Board last year and appointed to the Michigan City Human Rights Commission in 2016, leaving will be bittersweet.
"My oldest just graduated from high school here and will be off to college, so that little voice kept saying this is the time. We've been here for three years and never planned to leave. We live three blocks from the beach so who would want to leave?
"I love Michigan City and I've been blessed to be elected to the School Board and honored to work with all the great people at the Michigan City Area Schools, but it was the right time."
While Tedesco feels blessed to be here, others feel the city was just as blessed to have her.
Carl Ridle, executive director of the city's Human Rights Department, said "Michigan City is a better place for people like Joanne.
"She was an awesome advocate for those with disabilities and special needs, and it's going to be a huge loss. She was the most diligent person I ever met in trying to address those needs. She was a consummate professional and almost a one-man band in advocating for those with special needs. She will be sorely missed."
Mayor Ron Meer, who appointed Tedesco to the HRC, agreed.
"Joanne brought a great awareness to the needs of those with disabilites," he said. "She worked tirelessly to make make sure that all were included in our community."
That energy and compassion won't be going to waste.
Tedesco has been appointed executive director of Families United for Support and Encouragement, a not-for-profit organization that "empowers families and individuals with disabilities and mental health needs by providing information, training, support and encouragement," a statement from the agency said.
“It’s just simply my calling to increase awareness of people with disabilities to ensure equality for all people,” Tedesco said. “I’m honored to have the opportunity to work with families and individuals ... across central Indiana.”
She will officially take the helm of Greenfield-based FUSE in mid-August after she and her family relocate.
"As the mother of child with a disability, a Human Rights Commissioner who has focused on educating her community about the disability population, a newly elected School Board member, and a public relations and branding professional, Tedesco brings a unique set of skills and experiences to the table," said Denise Arland, previous executive director and co-founder of FUSE.
“Joanne certainly has a heart for the disability community. It was obvious when we first met her that her drive and passion for this population sparks a certain energy within her that fuels her to create events, educate families and do all that she can to make an impact."
Tedesco was one of 34 Indiana residents chosen to be part of the Indiana Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities' Partners in Policymaking Academy, and graduated in 2017.
That same year, she started the Michigan City Parents Support Group, which offers parents of special needs children an opportunity to meet, share issues and ideas, and learn from a variety of experts.
As a Human Rights commissioner in Michigan City, she "worked tirelessly to educate her community and raise the awareness about issues that impact the disability population," Arland said.
In that role she partnered with MCAS to recognize Special Education staff, including support staff and therapists, who enrich the lives of students with disabilities and push them toward independence, she said.
"Joanne is an energetic and dedicated advocate for children with disabilities and their families," MCAS Supt. Barbara Eason-Watkins said. "Her time in Michigan City was short but the impact substantial. She organized several workshops for parents and shared her personal challenges to build trust with those needing support.
"She also deeply valued the employees who served our students with disabilities and honored them annually with a reception and tribute from the Mayor and Human Rights commissioners. Joanne will certainly be missed, however, her legacy and great work will continue."
Tedesco believes that will be the case, but she's not taking any chances.
"I've reached out to people who can take my place on the HRC, and I've put together a document listing all of the events I've worked – the what, where, when, who and how – kind of a roadmap. I just don't want to lose the momentum we've started here."
She said she got to work with some great people in Michigan CIty, and will never forget her time here.
"I have never been so loved before for just trying to do good. There is a lot of goodness in Michigan City and I'm sure the work will continue – they'll have my roadmap and I won't be that far away."
In fact, she plans to return every year to help with the Autism Forum, one of the events she spearheaded.
"There's a lot of good movement there. We had some great people and some great speakers, and I'd like to get a few more vendors out there. I want to keep growing it."
The events and programs she started here were noticed by her new employers.
"As founder of the Michigan City Parents Support Group, Tedesco hosted nearly 10 events to try and raise the bar on disability awareness," said Cheryl Blocher, FUSE Board president. Events focused on special education offerings and services in MCAS, parents’ rights and Article 7, sub-minimum wage, autism and ABA therapy, Down syndrome, and vocational rehabilitation services available locally.
“The selection of a new Executive Director is one of the most important duties a Board of Directors has to perform to ensure the future success of the organization,” she said. “Joanne has just the right combination of skills and passion to lead our organization into the future. We look forward to her getting started.”
Another of her projects was Dance With Me.
In 2017, during Disability Awareness month (March), she announced formation of the creative movement class for children with disabilities, developed in partnership with Studio M. "The class offers the disability community the opportunity to participate in a freeing activity that has no boundaries," she said.
Tedesco is also a board member of the Mental Illness Advisory Council (Indiana Disability Rights) and Special Olympics of La Porte, where she worked to develop a bowling league for youth.
"I'm proud to say I worked with her," Ridle said. "She individually has addressed each disability group – the mentally handicapped, special education, autism, all of them. FUSE just got an awesome person."
And while he will likely be in touch with the mayor on appointing a replacement on the HRC, Ridle said it will be "extremely difficult to find someone to even halfway fill her shoes. I just cannot say enough about what she has done."
But now, Tedesco said, it's time to do something for her daughter.
"I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to meet a number of experts and community advocates with whom I’ve built lasting friendships. I think it’s important to help students figure out their strengths and build on them.
"Now it's time to figure out life for Madelyn," she said. "These kids have gifts and they need the right people and programs to pull them out. They have some great people here, and they've been very, very supportive.
"But it's very overwhelming to have a child who is not typical – that is my mission and that is my heart."