Elizabeth Schmidt's commitment to the mission of the Harvey-Marion County Community Developmental Disability Organization started long before she took on the role of Executive Director back in 2007 — as she has helped meet the needs of the intellectually and developmentally disabled in the region dating back almost four decades.

"I have worked in this field for most of my adult, working life. I first worked in this field as a college student in 1978 at a group home out here in Newton, a group home for women," Schmidt said.

That illustrious career of service will soon come to an end, though, as Schmidt recently announced her impending retirement from the CDDO (though she has committed to stay on until her replacement is found).

Whether working in a group home, in case management or helping oversee services at the county and state level, Schmidt has always been a believer in helping offer support and services that increase independence, integration, inclusion and productivity of developmentally disabled individuals in their own homes and communities.

Serving as Executive Director of the Harvey-Marion County CDDO, which was officially formed as an independent organization through joint resolutions of both counties in 2007, Schmidt acts as gatekeeper — determining which clients are officially eligible for the services the CDDO provides to help them participate fully as valued members of their communities.

Following that determination, qualified clients for community-based services are approved and then put on a waiting list that is currently booked for eight years. However, the CDDO can also connect qualifying clients with case management services (with no waiting list) and affiliated companies — like ResCare, Good Will Industries, MSDC, etc.

Bringing those worlds together and helping provide quality assurance as an independent organization takes a team and Schmidt noted she has a good one at the CDDO. While unaware of what she was getting involved with initially, Schmidt admitted she has fully become a team player over the years.

"At the time I first started, I didn't really know what I was getting into. I was a college student and I was looking for a job," Schmidt said. "I have come back to it and stayed in it because at a very deep level I feel that people with developmental disabilities are, first and foremost, people who are more like us than unlike us ... and that our communities are richer when people with developmental disabilities are included, participate and belong. We have much to learn and receive from people with developmental disabilities."

No matter what role Schmidt has played in helping the developmentally disabled, it has often been in service to adults and children in the region, as she has not roamed far from her native Harvey County (growing up in rural Walton). Even while working for the state, Schmidt served the south central Kansas region and worked out of offices in Newton.

Working well as a team to provide good outcomes for those receiving services was part of Schmidt's initial goals when joining the CDDO, as the team clicking on all cylinders helps the services offered by the CDDO shine that much brighter — and it has offered some truly great things under Schmidt's leadership.

One of the things Schmidt admitted brings her the most joy is the Project Search program the CDDO helped establish, which has been operating in Harvey County for eight years now. With an educational base and business partner (the Harvey County Special Education Cooperative and Newton Medical Center in this case), clients are given the opportunity on a daily basis to learn what they need to enter the working world.

"It is a model of supporting young adults with developmental disabilities to get work skills for successful employment. It works by having a host business where they actually go everyday and do unpaid internships, so it's in the real world. It's immersion learning," Schmidt said. "The transformation that happens over the course of a school year is just phenomenal and the goal is for everyone to get competitive employment."

Personal reasons led Schmidt to step away at this time — wanting to spend more time with her mother after the passing of her father — but she knows she is leaving the CDDO in a good position.

Many success stories have been shared and experienced by CDDO clients over the years — like the work the organization did with local legislators to adopt the Rosa's law, which established the developmentally disabled language at the state level. Schmidt has been happy to be a part of that and hopes to see that vision continue to be realized once she steps away.

"There are always bright things happening for someone somewhere, whether it's getting a job, being included in Bingo in a local setting or learning a new skill that they haven't done before. There are always exciting things to celebrate," Schmidt said. "What I hope carries forward is the idea of person first — that people with disabilities are people first — and that how we work together is person-centered. I really believe that it enriches community the more that we can include and appreciate people of all abilities. It makes all of us better people; I really believe that."