University of Wisconsin-Stout alumna Tricia Thompson knew for many years she wanted to be a part of the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities.
Thompson, of Menomonie, was appointed to the board last year by Gov. Tony Evers.
“I knew I wanted to be part of that organization’s work,” said Thompson, who earned her master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation in 2010. “They are authentic advocates. It’s more than just their jobs; it’s their lives.”
The BPDD was established to advocate on behalf of individuals with developmental disabilities, foster welcoming and inclusive communities and improve the disability service system. The mission is to help people become independent, productive and included in all facets of community life.
Thompson, also a Menomonie school board member, was appointed for four years as a caregiver parent.
In 2003, Thompson and her husband, Pete, adopted her two half-siblings, Becca and Nathan Roemer, because she didn’t want them to experience life as orphans after their and Thompson’s mother, Lori, died in 2002, after suffering for years from depression and anxiety. Both her siblings were in and out of the foster care system before Thompson adopted them.
Thompson spent time in foster care after her father, Bruce, a hemophiliac, died in 1998. He contracted the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, from a blood transfusion.
Nathan Roemer, who is 25, has a developmental disability. He lives with Thompson and works full time for a manufacturer in Menomonie.
Thompson, who has two children, has been a BPDD advocate for her brother and others with developmental disabilities, encouraging companies to give them a chance to see their abilities as employees. Nathan Roemer learns by doing and seeing and has difficulty following a list or a set of instructions. He is a good worker, shows up on time and loves his job, Thompson said.
Hiring those with disabilities helps them and helps the economy because they pay taxes, buy things and contribute to the community, Thompson said.
Beth Sweeden, executive director of BPDD, said Thompson is a tremendous asset to the board in both representing the priorities and concerns in her area of the state but also as an advocate who will work with programs, policymakers and community leaders to assure the voices of people with disabilities and their families are heard.
“Tricia is one of the most committed and skilled people I know in providing support and resources to people so they cannot just get their needs met but become effective leader advocates themselves,” Sweeden said. “She has an incredible ability to see the strengths and potential in others, then the wisdom to coach and guide people on their own personal path to success.”
Thompson chose vocational rehabilitation at UW-Stout because she knows the value of employment. She found the program welcoming, supportive and challenging. In spring 2010, she was named the outstanding student of the year by the vocational rehabilitation faculty.
“I chose UW-Stout because I knew I would have the opportunity to learn from leaders in vocational rehabilitation, professors who valued my life and professional experience and never treated me like a number,” Thompson said.
Growing up, Thompson’s family had difficulty making ends meet. Her father was on Social Security his entire life, and her mom received welfare prior to qualifying for Social Security several years before her death.
“Work is huge,” Thompson said. “I saw what happens when you don’t have that in your life. To me working with individuals with disabilities and to gain employment seriously changes their opportunities. It’s self-worth. It gives you something in common with your neighbor. None of us want to be dependent. My parents hated it. They started to retreat from society because they didn’t feel they had anything in common with the rest of society. Having jobs would have made a difference to them. We all want to be independent.”
Professor Michelle Hamilton, UW-Stout department of rehabilitation and counseling, was Thompson’s academic adviser and teacher. “Tricia Thompson is best described by three ABC words: advocacy, beneficence and curiosity,” Hamilton said.
“Tricia is willing to challenge herself as well as the world around her. Throughout her graduate program, the professional knowledge and competencies of the program found Tricia in the top percentiles of the graduate classes. The personal growth and self-awareness offered in the counseling aspects of the program often come as unexpected and unwanted opportunities for growth. Tricia wholeheartedly took on the personal challenges with a curious mind. She is committed to making a positive difference in the lives of others. The UW-Stout M.S. rehabilitation counseling program is honored to have Tricia as a graduate.”
Thompson graduated in 2014 from the Wisconsin Partners in Policy, a leadership program conducted by BPDD. It prepares self-advocates and family members of people with disabilities to work on policies and initiatives that support inclusion.
Thompson is working on Senate Bill 344, which would require the Department of Workforce Development to employ family navigators in each local workforce development area of the state for youths ages 17 to 22 who receive SSI.
“Family navigators help connect individuals who receive SSI with needed resources, such as housing and energy assistance, Medicaid, vocational rehabilitation services, etc.,” Thompson said. “The overall goal is to promote employment and less reliance on SSI using more of a mentor model that encourages self-determination and independence. It is exactly the type of assistance my parents needed and never had access to and is one reason why I am dedicated to doing what I can to make sure this bill becomes law.”
Thompson feels compelled to help others. “I feel the need to do as much as I can, as quickly as I can,” she said. “I am keenly aware of how short life is.”
UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes.