Tara Oliver Shares Her Experiences At Cedar Lake Alongside Her Brother Matthew

Photography Provided

Cedar LakeCedar Lake has been in the Louisville area for 50 years, providing assistance to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

With a workforce of over 450 employees, some having been with the organization for 40-plus years, one can imagine the dedication, drive and empathy that these direct care staff have for their people who are cared for who come to Cedar Lake to heal, learn and grow.

One such person is Tara Oliver, who serves as director of corporate and foundation relations for this revered organization. Oliver didn’t start at that level – she worked her way up through the ranks beginning as an intern when she attended the University of Louisville.

Before her time at U of L, she had been attending Kentucky Wesleyan College under an academic scholarship in biology, with a focus on becoming a research geneticist. After one year at Wesleyan, Oliver felt this was not the right direction for her career. She came back to Louisville and took some time off from the collegiate world, and resumed her work with Kentuckiana Allergy, where she worked during summers off from Jeffersontown High School and college.

As life came calling, Oliver met and married her husband of 20 years, Steve, a former dental lab salesperson. Soon came their son Hayden and daughter Harper. While Oliver took some time to be a wife and mother, she also realized it was important to get back to school and earn a degree. She enrolled at U of L and began classes in art history, then teaching, before landing in business and marketing.

During her final year of school, Oliver had the opportunity to engage in an internship at Cedar Lake, with which she was familiar through her brother’s association with the organization. Her younger brother Matthew has Down syndrome and had been a client there for a number of years. During her internship she had a firsthand account and insight into what Cedar Lake does for the community and for the people who are cared for. She was ensconced in the depth of care for people who often do not have the same advantages as others, due to conditions beyond their choice and, often, understanding.

When Oliver went back into the workforce, she was ready to create her own identity, and she worked with organizations like Path Forward, who had similar programs to Cedar Lake, such as job placement services. While she enjoyed her work there, she felt a calling to make it back to Cedar Lake.

Having completed the internship, Oliver was certainly known there among the management, and she expressed interest in working there in the marketing and communications department. It wasn’t long before Cedar Lake asked her to come on board.

Cedar Lake

Starting in the marketing and communications department, Oliver’s talents quickly earned her a rise within the organization, always in a fundraising mode and sometimes serving as the sole person in the department. Her eight years with Cedar Lake have been some of the most rewarding of her professional life.

When asked about how her work has coincided with her brother being a client, Oliver is quick to share that she is able to be successful because of Matthew’s success. Yes, she often uses her brother’s story as part of the dialogue that she presents to potential donors and people who are cared for , but it is a dialogue steeped in truth and admiration for the remarkable work that is done through and with Cedar Lake.

Cedar Lake has been present in the community for half a century, and began as a way for those with challenges to learn and develop skills that lead them on the path to experience – as Cedar Lake leaders express it – a life of abundant possibilities. Its founders were parents of children who faced challenges, and recognized there was a lack of assistance and residential help for them. By 1974 their services expanded, and in 1989 they were able to build community-based support options. Through these support options, the Cedar Lake residences were formed.

Within these residences, Cedar Lake tenants go about their daily lives just like we all do – they tidy up the house, go to work, play some video games, hang out with friends, and go to dinner. These are the types of achievements that prove to Cedar Lake and its vast range of clientele and supporters how invaluable their services are.

And yes, Matthew is certainly one of those success stories. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case. Oliver shares that when Matthew was born, he didn’t cry. As he was diagnosed with Down syndrome, it was suggested that he go to a special facility. What a hard decision for a parent who has a special needs child.

Like many other parents, there was fear of how their son would develop and navigate adulthood. Fortunately, Cedar Lake offered the services that would enable Matthew to grow and learn. He lives in an apartment that is part of the Cedar Lake facilities, of which there are 35, including several in the St. Matthews and Jeffersontown area. The housing that has been developed allows freedom and socialization for its residents. Aside from living on his own, Matthew holds jobs at both Rainbow Blossom and Cinemark Theatres.

While Matthew loves movies, he is also an artist. Oliver shares that he loves to draw and that his family has several of his pieces hanging on the walls of their respective residences. While drawing is a favorite medium for her brother, she also mentions that he is into clay and pottery. In fact, his artistic work has been on display for Zoom Group, which showcases the talents of artists like Matthew.

What is it about the culture of Cedar Lake that has allowed it to survive and thrive for the past 50 years? Oliver, with a smile on her face, answers that question without a beat: “Its caregivers and our people who are cared for.”

“Some of our caretakers have been with us for 40 years or more,” she adds. “Sometimes it is partly because they began work there to help assist a family member who came to our facilities for assistance, but more times than not it is because these associates have a deep, heartfelt want to help our neighbors who are developmentally challenged. There are moments when our residents may become a bit erratic due to their condition, but our caretakers take it on the chin – unfortunately, sometimes literally – and come back day after day because this is their passion, to take care of these fragile, vulnerable and lovable individuals.”

While Oliver has been a member of the management team for approximately eight years, some of her colleagues have been there for multiple decades, such as Jim Richardson, Cedar Lake’s former president, whose tenure lasted 34 years. Currently, Chris Stevenson, formally of Pillar, has been CEO for almost 10 years.

“One aspect of Cedar Lake that I am especially proud to share with donors and potential people who are cared for,  is that we offer a continuum of care,” Oliver says. “It is through the dedication of our caretakers that we are able to offer this. The care that is given to our residents is not lost on our strong management, and we are all too happy to recognize their dedication and hard work. Recently we were able to give our employees a bump in pay and we often incentivize our workforce by sharing with them cookies, T-shirts and other assorted gifts, as well as personalized thank-yous. Cedar Lake cannot do what it does without an army of caretakers and associates who share an innate ability to convey compassion and empathy, and are knowledgeable and kind of heart.”

As one can imagine, there is great importance in raising money for this worthy cause, and that is part of what makes Oliver’s career challenging. She is always in a fundraising frame of mind and relishes the opportunity to share the success of Cedar Lake. It doesn’t hurt that she has had a bevy of support from others regarding the often-choppy waters of raising money, and she shares her appreciation for working with Jim Evans for a time, who is well-versed in the waves of that particular sea.

We, as a society, have changed dramatically from the earliest days of Cedar Lake’s creation. There was a time that the word “retarded” was used as a blanket term to describe someone with developmental difficulty.

“That word is not a part of our vocabulary, and when I hear it in conversation, I do my best to explain to the user of the harm that the word exhibits to its intended subject,” Oliver says. “Our vision is of a community where those with and without disabilities learn to share and enrich each other’s lives through meaningful interactions that cultivate mutual respect and unconditional love. We live the mantra of unconditional love each and every day that we spend with these marvelous people, and we are the better for it.”

While Cedar Lake has been a big part of Oliver’s life, she has become involved in other activities. She currently serves on the Jeffersontown High School Alumni Board and is deeply involved in Tully Elementary’s parent-teacher association (PTA). She shares that at Tully, PTA involvement is a very important expectation of parents. Also, Oliver and her family welcomed Lina, a foreign exchange student from outside Frankfurt, Germany. She attended Jeffersontown High School until this past March, when she went back home due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Oliver also loves the beach and vacationing.

“My family and I are excited to head to Tybee Island during the Labor Day week,” she says. “In fact, we are making it an all-family vacation – husband, kids, mom and brother. It is important to us that we find time to get away, to reconnect, to renew.”

Perhaps it is through Oliver’s dedication and work-life balance that she serves as such an integral part of the Cedar Lake story. The Louisville area is certainly better for having Cedar Lake and its devoted supporters and staff.

“When given the opportunity to share who and what Cedar Lake is, I feel pride and some emotion, not only because I get to share of how successful my brother has been, but also because I get to see, firsthand, the success on other’s faces,” Oliver says. “It is not hard to believe and repeat Cedar Lake’s vision statement, as it truly reflects what we’ve been doing and continue to do, in the present and going forward.”

For more info, visit cedarlake.org.

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