November 25, 2014
VCIL may be losing its Home Access Program coordinator to retirement, but it is not losing one of its staunchest advocates. Joyce Werntgen is retiring in a few weeks; however, she will always be a part of the disability rights movement.
VCIL Executive Director Sarah Launderville has known Joyce for many years. “She was my first supervisor at VCIL and is a warm and wonderful woman. Joyce has dedicated her heart and soul to this organization and she will be sorely missed. Her sense of humor and incredible work ethic has allowed VCIL to grow to the organization it is today, and she leaves a great legacy in her retirement.”
Joyce has been a fixture at VCIL since 1993, when she was hired as the executive director’s assistant. She served in that role, working under four different directors, for about 10 years, till she began working in the Home Access Program in 2003. Today, Joyce is the manager of the program, which provides home entrance and bathroom modifications for people with disabilities.
Working at VCIL has fulfilled Joyce’s career goals of doing something that matters in people’s lives, and she has particularly enjoyed her work in the Home Access Program.
She said, “You see something tangible at the end [of a project]. You see a ramp or a bathroom or somebody able to get back to work—those kinds of things. My time here has never been dull. I’ve worked with some fantastic people and it’s an organization that addressed my goals of doing something that mattered in people’s lives. [A nonprofit] is the place to go if you want to make a difference; that has been my goal, and I’ve been lucky to do that for 20 years.”
As with any job, Joyce’s work at VCIL has come with its struggles, including trying to do a lot with not a lot of money.
Joyce has not always worked in a mission-driven environment. “In my life in New York, I was a legal secretary,” she noted.
She grew up in Brooklyn and lived for awhile on Long Island.
“I’m always excited when I hear a New York or a Long Island accent. It took me awhile to get my language understood in Vermont because I had such a New York accent.”
Today, no trace of a Big Apple accent can be found in her speech. Instead, Joyce is known for her kind heart and remarkable ability to lighten the mood of any meeting or gathering with her dry and quick sense of humor—always managing to come up with the perfect quip for any occasion.
In 1967, Joyce moved from New York City to Vermont and found work at a law firm in Burlington. In 1971, she stopped working outside the home to focus on raising her three sons. She returned to work in 1981, running a special religious education program in Burlington for people with developmental disabilities from age 8 to adults.
After that, Joyce got a job doing administrative work at COTS, a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter, services, and housing for people who are homeless in Vermont. While working at COTs, Werntgen was able to go back to school, obtaining her associate’s degree in women’s studies from Burlington College. She took a lot of writing courses, which would prove to be very helpful in her work at VCIL.
During her 21 years working in the movement, Joyce has witnessed a shift in people’s attitudes toward people with disabilities.
She explained, “A disability now is not something we need to hide away, and make sure somebody’s taken care of. That’s changed a lot. Instead it’s ‘how do we get folks with a disability to be able to fully participate?’”
She said that unlike years ago, a person with a disability may be in a movie or on a television show not because they have a disability but simply because they were chosen to play a character. “Other times it still feels like we have a long way to go, such as when you go to a restaurant and it’s not accessible and the business owner thinks they are accessible because they only have a three or four-inch lip on their door.”
In the increased amount of free time that retirement allows, Joyce plans to spend some time volunteering for the Vermont Workers’ Center, another organization that is close to her heart. Her late spouse, Peg Franzen, was president of the Vermont Workers’ Center and helped bring together the state’s disability rights and workers’ rights movements. Joyce said, “She was just a mover and a shaker and also the big thing about Peggy was that she was a connector. And so it was natural for her to get those two groups working together.”
Joyce is an animal lover who owns a cat named JP. She is also a reader and a movie fan, especially enjoying a good comedy and any kind of mystery. She loves PBS programming, including “Masterpiece Theatre” and “The Paradise.”
More books and more movies are definitely on her agenda for retirement. But the thing she is looking forward to most about retirement is having the freedom to travel and spend more time with her family. She has three sons who all live out of state—one is in Georgia; one lives in Maine, and the other is moving to Arizona at year’s end. She is also excited about the prospect of spending more quality time with her four grandchildren, ages 8, 7, 5, and 2.
Other things that Joyce looks forward to having more time for include cooking and dabbling in watercolors. She also wants to sort and scan the many boxes of photos that she has acquired over the years.
The idea of retiring does not come without its bittersweet moments. “It will be hard after 20 years to pack up a box and leave because there’s 20 years of stuff here,” said Joyce.
Providing music to her coworkers’ ears, she added, “I would love to be able to come back and volunteer and help the organization that I care so much about.”
Karin Nissen, VCIL’s Meals on Wheels coordinator, has worked with Joyce for many years and is one of many staffers in the Montpelier office who will miss seeing Joyce on a daily basis.
Nissen said, “I treasure the sense of connection with VCIL’s history whenever I talk with Joyce and will miss that very much. I will also miss the friendship that developed over the years working together to serve our community and her deep sense of what is right and wrong.”
She concluded, “Most of all I will miss Joyce’s laughter and stories at the lunch table—her contribution to our little community here in the office.”