‘It’s been pretty cool to help people gain more independence’

Longtime community advocate Janice Nelson moves on to her next chapter.

Connect to community, serve community, foster community.

When you chat with Janice Nelson, “community” is bound to pop up again and again. It runs deep in her bones.

Indeed, love of community has blazed in Nelson from her first days in Auburn, through her employment at Trillium Employment Services.

Nelson retires this week, one month shy of 28 years at a job she thought would be short term, but saw her connect hundreds of disabled persons to the community, to employment, to a fuller life.

“Rewarding. I mean, how could it not be? I have known some people for 20-plus years and supported them in their jobs all the time. To see people grow, to go from part-time to full-time, to see them move out on their own. It’s been pretty cool to help people gain more independence.”

But her involvement in the life of Auburn did not start or stop there.

Freshly arrived in 1995, the native of West Palm Beach, Florida, threw herself into the life of her adopted town as an independent contractor for the Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce.

She likewise pitched into Auburn Good Old Days and Pathways Partnerships, the latter a program to forge relationships between local businesses and the Auburn School District that arranged internships for students and job shadowing.

Those gigs were coming to an end, she said, at the time Trish Borden, then director of Trillium, recruited her to join its small staff. Borden’s husband, Lee Valenta, had launched Trillium in 1983.

“I had known her through community and politics,” Nelson said of Borden. “She announced a part-time opportunity over lunch about helping people with disabilities get more involved in the community.”

The offer appealed to Nelson, despite some doubts.

“I had had zero experience working with people with disabilities. That was one of the things I was kind of concerned about. I said, ‘Trish I don’t know anything about this, I don’t know anybody.’ I was just treating people like I would treat anybody. Nothing special. I wasn’t an expert, I wasn’t a social worker. I was intrigued at the time because the Chamber thing was ending. I was looking for something, and thought, ‘Oh that sounds cool,’ because I was already involved in the community,” Nelson said.

Nelson started at Trillium as a part-time community networker at the then- office above H&R Block on East Main and Auburn Way North.

“There were about five people total,” Nelson recalled. “That was it. And as people left, and things evolved, I moved into working full time, and becoming more of what would be called ‘an appointment consultant with a community bent’ and helping people with disabilities find gainful employment.”

And true to the ethos of small offices everywhere, she learned to do just about everything. It didn’t take her long to warm to the job.

“It seemed to me very easy and very logical for me to work with people and get to know people because I didn’t treat them any differently than how I might get to know you or anybody else,” Nelson said.

“I enjoyed the flexibility and versatility the job provided. I guess I warmed to the aspect of being involved in the community. I had lived in a lot of places, but I had never lived in one long enough to establish roots,” Nelson said.

About a month into the job, she learned that Valenta and others were planning the first Uniquely Auburn. So she did what she would do again and again over the years — jump in to help. She continued with Uniquely Auburn for 13 years.

In time she joined the Auburn Soroptimist Club, the Chamber, the White River Valley Museum Board of Directors and pitched into planning for the Good Old Days event.

She credits her late father, Fred Berk, and mother, Nettie, for the community spirit they instilled in her as a girl.

“Growing up, my father was pretty involved in the community in West Palm Beach, so I knew what that was. So it was great to have that connection, working in the community, helping people with disabilities connect with the community and find great jobs,” Nelson said. “A big part of our identity is having a job. It’s been great getting to know people and their families.”

There are a few things about the laid-back Nelson that would undoubtedly surprise.

In a job that demands social contracts, Nelson admits to being a “total introvert.” Also, in her school days, she was a fine athlete, excelling at numerous sports.

“I am extremely competitive,” Nelson said.

Her father probably had something to do with that, taking her along as he ventured into many smoke-filled pool halls and restaurants to fill the vending machines. Turns out, Nelson had a natural gift for shooting pool, and developed into quite the shark from the time she was 8 years old. She dug nothing more than to wipe the floor with some arrogant jerk who thought he could dance all over the girl.

“They didn’t like it,” said Nelson, the not-so-faint smile on her lips revealing just how much she relishes the memory.

Her daughter, Rebecca, for years was a magazine writer in New York, her work appearing in the Washington Post magazine, GQ, and many other publications. She now works for Microsoft.

Nelson’s plan after retirement is to move to Anacortes, another city she has grown to deeply love.

She finds it ironic when friends congratulate her for the long run at Trillium

“I had 35 jobs before I started working at Trillium, and I was 36 at that time,” Nelson said with a laugh.