Stories by Debbie Hall

Photos by Connie Palen

In 1984 three sets of parents of intellectually challenged children founded New Vista Ranch, Inc. Today, New Vista provides programs that focus on giving options to participants and residents for every aspect of their lives, teaching those who are part of New Vista the skills to use in everyday life with the goal of living independently within a safe community. The following three women of New Vista have demonstrated courage, fortitude, perseverance and grace and have become an inspiration to all of us as Las Vegas Woman honors them as our Fearless Females.

Tammy Townsend: Focusing on the positive

Las Vegas native Tammy Townsend grew up in Indian Springs, Nev., before moving back to Las Vegas. A wheelchair user due to cerebral palsy, Townsend does not allow this challenge to define her life.

“I want people to focus on me as a person, not because I’m in a wheelchair,” Townsend said. “The reason I’m in a wheelchair does not matter, I would have the same answers to the questions (in the interview) regarding how I feel about my life.”

Townsend has worked at the job she loves as a receptionist at Summit Daycare Center since 2011. According to Townsend, her biggest success was “to get the job I enjoy, which also pays more. I feel I have a very determined attitude and was able to persevere 7 ½  years to get a job that I really wanted.” In the past, Townsend has worked at Transition Services answering the phone and making scented-rock gift items (to be placed in a drawer).

While volunteering in a school, Townsend met Marcus Olige, who is also a wheelchair user. The two of them participated in a commitment ceremony on July 23, 2005. She is unable to get legally married and keep her benefit, but is hoping the laws will be changed so the couple can be wed. They also hope to adopt one day. While Townsend herself is not involved with any political group to change the laws about marriage and being able to keep benefits, she does have family that is working to get the laws amended.

When Townsend was volunteering, she worked one on one with children in a third grade resource room at Vail Pittman Elementary School helping to keep them focused on their work. Townsend also feels it is something that helps to make a difference in the school experience. She said that she felt she overcame people making fun of her in school and, “was able to be strong enough to walk away from those individuals” and wants to share this with children today.

“Schools need to have a zero-tolerance policy regarding bullying. The schools need to take a stand. If a child is being bullied, they need to tell someone, be able to walk away and ignore it,” she said.

Townsend would like to be able to repay the school district for all of her education and would like to return to the school setting and work with children as a career. Townsend also wants to learn to speak Spanish to help her achieve her goals in the educational field.

When not working or volunteering, Townsend enjoys beadwork, collecting dolls, participating in community activities and shopping. Townsend and Olige enjoy going out to dinner and performances, and participating in activities as well as spending time with family and friends. Townsend is also computer literate and is an active gamer.

Townsend said her mindset of living life with an upbeat and positive attitude makes her a Fearless Female.

Donna Cooper: A role model for her peers

Donna Jean Cooper was born on June 15, 1960 in Las Vegas. Nine years later, Cooper moved with her family to the rural town of Steubenville, Ohio, best known as the birthplace of singer Dean Martin.

Diagnosed as intellectually challenged, Cooper and her family moved to Pittsburgh for an educational system better equipped to work with Cooper.

In 1977, her family returned to Las Vegas and Cooper graduated from the special education program at Clark High School, just one year behind her class. In fact, Cooper has remained in contact with one classmate, who would become a doctor and have Cooper as a patient in later years.

Cooper became the first resident to move into the then newly opened New Vista Ranch and has resided at The Keenan House for the past 20 years. According to staff members, “Donna feels like she is a leader at the Ranch and is able to help her peers by being a positive role model. Donna’s life has been greatly impacted through mentoring of individuals that have come and gone from the Ranch over the years.”

In 1986, Cooper started working at Variety Early Learning Center and has continued to work there for the past 26 years. Cooper enjoys working with children and it’s obvious to the staff of Variety Early Learning Center that she has a special gift of genuine love and caring for children. According to staff members, “The children Donna works with do not have disabilities. Donna enjoys the children that she works with and has great stories to tell after work each day. The children all love Donna and often ask if they can come home with her.”

When she is not working, Cooper enjoys bowling and has been a part of the RTL Bowing League for many years. Cooper has an active social life with many friends and participates in activities such going to the movies, dancing and shopping. She enjoys movies produced by The Walt Disney Co. as well as comedies. Cooper also likes country music and dances.

Cooper has overcome the adversity of her intellectual challenged diagnosis, with her success of holding and excelling in demanding job for 26 years, contributing to society and living her life as beautiful and loving individual. Cooper is ready to reach new goals including being able to live independently in the future and right now is being assisted in learning how to cook to succeed in her goal. Cooper is truly a Fearless Female.

Cherese Strickling: Communicating with the heart

At an early age, Cherese Strickling was diagnosed with profound intellectual challenges along with other medical illnesses. Still, the 37-year-old native of Las Vegas has learned to overcome many obstacles with the love and support of her family and New Vista, despite being nonverbal.

According to staff members at New Vista, Strickling has grown into a kind, loving, gentle woman who is loved by her family, the staff at New Vista and the staff at Opportunity Village, where she is currently employed. While Strickling remains nonverbal, she is able to communicate very well with gestures.

When Strickling exhibited an increase of physical aggression at the age of 7, her family made the painful and heartfelt decision to place Strickling in the care of Desert Regional Center. After placement, her family continued to support Strickling during her treatments and meetings.

In fact, Strickling’s parents and family members are her strongest advocates and most significant part of her support team, providing continuity for Strickling in her daily life and interaction in the community. As a result, Strickling graduated from Helen J. Stewart Special School, holds a job and enjoys a special relationship with her family.

Strickling currently works full time for Easter Seals in a day program as a paper shredder. When not working, Strickland enjoys her hobby of collecting decorative pillows and fans for her bedroom. She saw that her mother had many pillows and wanted to emulate her.

Strickling and her mother are best friends and even though Strickling does not speak, she able to engage her mother in a conversation that makes them both laugh. Strickling comes home on Sunday and spends her time watching her mother cook. Her mother braids her hair each week along with giving Strickland manicures and pedicures. They will listen to 88.1 FM on the radio (soul and R&B music) and dance to the songs. They both enjoy watching movies on myLifetime television network and the two of them wait for Strickling’s father to come home from work so they can all have dinner together. Strickling communicates that while she loves to come home for visits, when she is ready to return to New Vista, she will let her parents know it’s time to leave by pointing at or trying to put on her shoes.

Strickling has two brothers. One lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. and the other lives in Chicago. Both brothers call often and when they reach out to her at her New Vista residence, a staff member will place the phone to her ear. She smiles and according to staff members, “feels she is aware that her brother is on the other end of the phone.” Her brothers, in fact, have renamed her, “The Queen formally known as Cherese.”

She also has an active social life involving movies, swimming, watching television as well as spending time with her family. Strickling also likes to watch sports, especially basketball and football games. Strickland considers New Vista her home and the staff and peers of New Vista as part of her extended family.

Strickling did not let any challenge hold her back and today holds a full-time job, maintains relationships with her family and friends and is a happy, contributing Fearless Female.