A Q&A with new Commissioner Burdeshaw
Q: Tell us a bit about your background in rehabilitation.
A: My first real job after receiving my degree was with the Alabama Elks Memorial Center in Montgomery. It’s closed now, but my time there might have positively impacted my career more than anything else I’ve done since.
The Elks Center was an ADRS CRP (community rehabilitation program) with a dormitory setting. Everyone I served at the center was a VR client, and I was their counselor. The dorm environment really immersed me in the world of persons with disabilities in a way that I don’t think is possible at an ordinary office.
While there, I spent a lot of time working with Vickie Fitzgerald and Mark Vosel, my two points of contact with the lead agency.
They both asked me, “Why aren’t you at Rehab?”
So, I formally joined Rehab in 1998 when I took a position as a SAIL case manager in Dothan.
My family and my home were always rooted in Montgomery, so my time in Dothan was brief. Still, I wouldn’t trade my experience in the Wiregrass for the world.
Working in people’s homes and out in the trenches over these first two experiences in my career shaped my holistic view into what it is today.
I’d do just about anything possible to help persons with disabilities – from transportation to mobility, health care, attendant care.
In the field, I learned that helping our consumers achieve their maximum potential requires maximum effort and wholehearted dedication on the part of staff.
In late ‘98, I accepted a rehab counselor position with Montgomery VR.
At this point in my career, I did many different things in a short period of time to develop my leadership skills, and I really got my hands dirty.
I worked a general and a transition caseload. I participated as a member of the Interagency Coordinating Council. I supervised and mentored graduate interns. I assisted in developing the positive behavior support model pilot for students with autism.
In 2000, I graduated from the department’s Leadership Training Institute (LTI) and worked closely with Peggy Anderson to help develop the RAVE (retaining a valued employee) program and write their first manual.
In 2001, I became the department’s staff development and training specialist.
This was my first opportunity to really see the department as a whole. While in that position and as staff development training coordinator, I learned more about ADRS that I had before.
You become focused so squarely on everyone’s training needs, you can really absorb a lot of information very quickly. I enjoyed these roles within the department because I learned so much about every division within the department just from doing my job.
Of course, for the past seven years, as director of Human Resource Development, I’ve been closely involved with what I consider the greatest asset we have as a department – our staff. In the day-to-day operations of the department, my role has put me in a position to always see the big picture to make sure I am always making the absolute best decisions to benefit the whole of the department.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: You know, when I think about what (Commissioner) Lamona (Lucas) has said several times before, “You surround yourself with good people, and let them do their job.”
I tend to agree with that. I thrive on feedback, and I thoroughly enjoy working with staff, but I also recognize we need to have standards set in place and work on a game plan.
Mostly, I plan to do a lot of listening in my first year. There are plenty of people here at this department with loads of expertise I know I don’t have, and if I don’t listen to them, I’ll be making a huge mistake.
Q: What’s on your shortlist of things to do as new commissioner?
A: One of the first things I want to do is get outside these four walls and go listen to our consumers. I don’t want to set visions or goals without truly knowing what people’s needs are.
I also want to make visits to our field offices to meet the people who are our “boots on the ground” so that I can get to know them and hear their ideas.
It would be foolish of me to assume that by gaining a new position, I’m automatically gaining support. I’m out to earn that support, and I want to assure our staff that they will be heard.
I want folks to know, “I’m going to hear you,” so I’m going to get out so that I can listen.
I also want to reiterate to staff that, hey, we’ve been doing good work, and we’re going to keep doing good work.
Q: A lot of people refer to ADRS as the “Rehab Family.” How important is that culture, and what does it mean to you?
A: That culture is what makes us who we are.
People come to this department for a reason, and it isn’t the money. This line of work is a calling. People need to have a passion for what we do, and it’s that passion that unites us.
In fact, the “Rehab Family” is the main reason I’ve stayed here as long as I have. When we all can get behind the shared vision of our mission statement and everyone is really enthusiastic about their work, people naturally open up to share more about their lives with their coworkers.
What you end up with this teamwork and this synergy and this camaraderie that is totally “Rehab” and isn’t found anywhere else. It’s my belief that if we didn’t continue and honor that culture and tradition, it would be a devastating loss to this department.