Disability:IN Uinta County’s 24th annual Evanston awards ceremony, catered by Denise’s Home Plate, had an audience notable in size and name on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the Machine Shop. The organization’s sponsors, board members, associated businesses and Wyoming’s United States Senator John Barrasso filled most of the building’s seats. Mark Madia acted as the event emcee.
Senator Barrasso offered opening remarks, recalling his time at the event in previous years. “I have so much appreciation and admiration for all of you,” he said. “There’s nowhere else in the world where you see this much kindness, compassion, generosity and goodness, because you get it all right here in Evanston.”
Of 2021’s ceremony, he said, “The world had a pandemic, and Evanston had a parade.” He offered a heartfelt declaration to Disability:IN’s retiring Executive Director and founder, Wanda Rogers, saying, “You’re retiring, but the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives. Your dream’s never going to die because of the people in this room.”
Sheila McGuire, a member of the Disability:IN board, introduced this year’s employees, mentors, mentees and students. As McGuire called names, people from a significant number of local businesses and schools approached the stage
Rogers emotionally thanked her colleagues and community members “for sticking with us for 24 years — serving with me and helping, providing this opportunity for the youth in our community.” She told the audience she was pleased with the outcomes her program has offered so far.
Rogers called Next Gen Mentoring Coordinator Bethany Scheidler forward. “Through this program,” Rogers said, “she has learned how amazing her story is, and the impact she has made on two amazing young adults.” Rogers added, “Through her story, we’ve been able to grow and make our mentoring program very valuable… We couldn’t do that without employers providing one-to-one mentors.”
After thanking Scheidler, Rogers received what Madia called a “well-deserved round of applause.” He called his collaboration with Rogers an honor, and thanked Scheidler for her cooperation.
Next, previous award recipients introduced this year’s winners, with accompaniment from music sponsors Kevin Kallas and Buffalo Federal Savings Bank, which tended to suit the awards and those receiving them. First was the Mentor of the Year award, which Sue Norman presented to Marny Huffaker.
The second award was the Spirit award, which Trona Valley Federal Credit Union handed off to the City of Evanston. Third was the Above and Beyond award, which Rogers presented to the late Rick Schuler. The Employer of the Year award was presented by Compassionate Journey’s Joy Bell to 1st Bank, and 2021 Employee of the Year Tanner Spatig presented this year’s award to Jennifer Joiner.
After a short icebreaker featuring impressions of an auctioneer and a turkey call, Braxton Nielsen offered the keynote speech, which focused on an inspiring story of recovery.
Before telling his story, Nielsen presented the three goals he tries to follow, saying that the first is a positive mindset. “Being able to change your perspective on a day-to-day basis as you go through your career will take you farther in life than you ever thought was possible.” His second key is hard work. “No one in this world,” he said passionately, “can dictate how hard you want to work at something, besides that person looking back from your mirror.” His final key is a strong support group. “Surround yourself with greatness.”
Nielsen recalled meeting Kaycee Feild, a professional rodeo athlete who has won a number of world championships in bareback bronc riding, and deciding to give up college basketball in order to begin participating in his mentor’s sport.
On Aug. 31, 2017, Nielsen was to be the first one out of the gate. When the gate opened, he said, his horse reared, pinning his shoulders against the back of the chute. The video Nielsen presented showed him exiting the chute before quickly falling from the horse. “It felt like someone smacked my stomach with a 2x4.”
In the hospital, a doctor told Nielsen’s father that he may never walk again, placing the odds of recovery at five percent. “My dad got a smile and said, ‘My son’s got a chance,’” Nielsen said.
After learning his prognosis, Nielsen committed to returning to his feet. After a lengthy stay at the hospital, sometimes doubting himself and coming within moments of giving up, he persevered and departed, aided by a walker and a physical therapist. He was no longer bound to a wheelchair.
Nielsen raised his voice as he finished his speech. “Life’s going to hit us. A challenge is going to come.” He encouraged finding a positive influence. “They’re going to help you, but you need to do your part… I hope you can change your perspective and see positive things, have that work ethic to believe in yourself.” His voice reached a crescendo as he said, “You are something amazing, you are worth it, your story’s great. Continue to make that difference, and eventually you’ll make it.”
As the applause tapered off, Madia introduced board member David Benton, who gave closing remarks. He thanked Rogers. “There is no amount of thanks and gratitude that can express what Wanda has done over the years.” He introduced the next Executive Director, Gina Jones.
Rogers thanked her family, community and colleagues for supporting her throughout her nearly two-and-a-half-decade endeavor.