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Mary Anderson, dedicated to helping others

Mary Anderson is executive director of Dickinson's Able Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to helping community members with intellectual disabilities. Before becoming its executive director in 1998, Anderson started at Able in 1985 as a nurse. She was ...

Mary Anderson, Able Inc. executive director, is busy in her office on a typical day of helping the intellectually disabled of southwest North Dakota. The program has come a long way since she joined in 1985 and became executive director in 1998, she said, but more work needs to be done. (Brandon L. Summers / The Dickinson Press)
Mary Anderson, Able Inc. executive director, is busy in her office on a typical day of helping the intellectually disabled of southwest North Dakota. The program has come a long way since she joined in 1985 and became executive director in 1998, she said, but more work needs to be done. (Brandon L. Summers / The Dickinson Press)

Mary Anderson is executive director of Dickinson's Able Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to helping community members with intellectual disabilities.

Before becoming its executive director in 1998, Anderson started at Able in 1985 as a nurse.

She was drawn into a career of nursing because she said it gave her the opportunity to help other people.

"I'm a person who likes to take care of people or support people," she said. "That's a natural inclination for me, so that was a natural profession to go into, one that supported people."

After two years as a nurse at St. Joseph's, Anderson joined Able after responding to an ad in the newspaper.

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The promise of being able to foster long-term relationships with clients appealed to her most.

"I knew nothing about Able," she said. "I was all of 25 years old. They had never had a nurse. When I was hired, I said, 'What do you think my role will be?' They said, 'I don't know, it's up to you.' That was a really good fit for me, because I was very energized by that statement. it didn't scare me at all."

As much as Anderson enjoyed shaping their program, she enjoys leadership roles more.

"You can have a global impact," she said. "I like the variety and the ability to make a big difference in people's lives."

Able was formed after a class-action suit against the state, declaring "the state's method of providing care for people with mental retardation violated their constitutional rights."

After the legal victory in 1984, Able began helping return the institutionalized to their homes and to newly formed group homes.

"When I first arrived at Able, I didn't know the origins," she said. "What we ended up doing, there would be busloads of people coming and we'd be admitting them straight from the institution into a group-home setting, not understanding what the history was. We didn't understand how much of a transition that was."

Staff at Able learned about the impact of this rapid transition along with its clients.

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"We opened four group homes in two months," Anderson said. "It was eight people at a time coming into these homes, and it was so much information, so fast, we didn't know people's histories. We didn't know anything about them."

She added, "The transition for people was very abrupt, very fast. We didn't know then."

Anderson learned later about the people they were helping.

"I pulled records of people, and when I looked at their reputations and what those records said, we didn't see the kinds of concerns they saw at the institution," she said. "The mere fact of changing the environment was absolutely huge."

She added, "We didn't know that in 1985. We didn't understand what that meant."

The significance of this impact became an epiphany.

"I wish I would have known how to get to people a little quicker, how to understand them better, and that was the emphasis rather than training," Anderson said.

For clients, training for independent living skills was emphasized.

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"That was a big push," Anderson said. "We were focused on helping people gain more skills, when really we should have been emotionally connecting with people in a much deeper sense."

There has been progress, though Anderson strives to continue making improvements and "create better integration scenarios."

"We are not done yet," she said. "We have not arrived yet."

Able has done well, Anderson said, creating new spaces for its clients, where they can live more independently.

Being able to foster a sense of home has been a great reward for Anderson.

"Some people have said, 'I feel like I'm living in a palace.' Another person said, 'I feel like I'm the queen in my own castle.' How many of us say things like that in our world and feel we are in that sort of excellent place?" she said. "Hitting that mark has been so remarkable. Then I know we have hit something very profound and exciting for people."

Able's efforts would not be possible without its team members, Anderson said.

"Able has been blessed with great team members," she said. "We have really fed off of one another, and because you can feed off each other's energies, you can create bigger and better templates.We're in constant conversation and in constant motion for improvement, and that's made the job enjoyable."

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