Reena’s Chief Operations Officer, Sandy Stemp, was a student at McMaster University in 1987 when she had her first encounter with Reena. “I was taking a nursing program and looking for an exciting summer job. I was immediately impressed with Reena’s summer program and its philosophy of support…to assist individuals to achieve their maximum potential.” Sandy loved Camp Reena so much she returned for four summers. “The hardest part was on the last day when the institutional vans would pull up and we knew they had to go back.”
Camp Reena was Sandy’s first introduction to the institutional era of people with developmental disabilities. Visits to the institutions left her heartbroken, but helping to bring them into the community was empowering. “One of the key fights was to bring people out of institutions. We spent days and weeks in institutions doing assessments and advocating for people. It was grassroots work but truly a labour of advocacy and love as we tried to bring people out into the community.”
When she graduated from University, Sandy was approached by Sandy Keshen. “She asked me ‘So now what? You have to come and work for us.’ And I said, ‘Do you have a job?’ And she said ‘That’s your problem. You need to make your job. Think about what you’ve done here for people with disabilities and think about what that job might look like in the city, and I will take your proposal to the Ministry.” A few weeks later, Sandy came back up to Camp with a Ministry representative, the position was funded, and Sandy Stemp has been with Reena ever since.
Sandy’s focus was on improving health for people with a developmental disability. “I was given the opportunity of designing training programs for Reena’s front-line staff as well as students by taking community health care principles and applying them to developmental services.” Along with behavioural therapist Larry Bowers, Sandy created courses, curriculum, and areas where Reena staff could learn and grow. She advocated for the training, developing relationships that eventually led to the Development Disabilities Counsellor Program (DDC), a joint certificate between Reena and George Brown College.
Sandy continued to accept increasingly responsible positions within Reena with roles ranging from Manager, Program Director, to Assistant Executive Director, and to COO. “There’s been incredible growth. I’ve taken on many large projects within Reena, they’ve been incredibly challenging but also incredibly fulfilling and I hope at the end of the day have had a positive impact for people with developmental disabilities,” Sandy was central in not only translating the Ontario Government’s many directives into understandable actions, but in paving the way for much of the work Reena has done to support the aging population of individuals with diverse abilities.
“The two Sandy’s”, as Sandy Stemp and her mentor Sandy Keshen became known, worked together for over 30 years. One of their major accomplishments together was the establishment of the Ontario Partnership on Aging and Developmental Disabilities (OPADD) in 2004. OPADD brought together service providers, government policy makers, planning and research communities from the developmental and long-term care sectors in Ontario to ensure the developmental disability population receives the same health services and supports as all older Ontarians. In the span of two decades, OPADD has created countless innovative, cross-sectoral programs and models of support between developmental services and the range of senior services across the province.
Through her extensive leadership work with OPADD, Sandy has established herself as an aging/dementia and developmental disabilities expert. Her advocacy in this area is ongoing. In 2018, alongside experts Dr. Nancy Jokinen and Leslie Udell, Sandy helped to create the NTG-Canadian Consortium on Intellectual Disabilities and Dementia, an affiliation with the National Task Group on Intellectual Disabilities and Dementia Practices (NTG) in the United States. The NTG-Canadian Consortium on Intellectual Disabilities and Dementia advocates for the inclusion of people with developmental disabilities into dementia planning and programs across Canada and successfully ensured the inclusion of people with developmental disabilities in Canada’s National Strategy on Dementia.
Under Sandy Keshen’s leadership and incredible vision, Sandy was encouraged to accomplish what seemed impossible. “Sandy Keshen always said, ‘We continue to best support those around us, but it’s not enough. We must seek out and help the ones we can’t see, the people who fell through the cracks and who need our help.’” That is part of the reason Sandy continues embracing challenges and continues to work to maintain Reena as a leader in the sector. Sandy describes Reena as being both visionary and innovative. “Visionary because Reena is an organization that is always looking to the future, not stuck in the past or confined by the present. Innovative because we are always thinking of how we can do things. We are the organization that doesn’t say no but asks how.”
Sandy’s wish for Reena’s future is, not surprisingly, ambitious. “That Reena continues to thrive and strive for the best…Continues to really innovate and push the boundaries and continues to reach out to those who may not be as fortunate.”