Living to better lives of others
And Char, her co-workers say, improved astronomically the lives of the developmentally disabled adults she spent most of her time working with.
“Char put peoples’ lives together,” Michelle Stewart, a co-worker, said Thursday. “She helped them find the path to make their lives as productive and meaningful as possible.”
To her friends and co-workers, the 48-year-old Eagle woman was known only as “Char.” She was killed Wednesday afternoon when the Ford Explorer she was driving swerved off the side of Interstate 70 near Gypsum and landed on its side in a three-foot deep irrigation pond.
“She was just a special person,” said her husband Terry Rounds. “She did a good job taking care of a lot of people.”
Char’s passenger, 28-year-old Bill Switala – one of the “guys” in her Vail-based program –was seriously injured in the crash. He airlifted from Vail Valley Medical Center to Denver General Hospital Wednesday. Switala, a multiple gold medalist in the Special Olympics and a volunteer for the Snowboard Outreach Society, remained in critical condition in the Denver intensive care unit there Thursday night.
For the last 18 years, Char worked for Mountain Valley Developmental Services, based in Glenwood Springs. When she started, there was no organized program in Vail or Eagle County – so she founded it.
“I can’t tell you how indebted our organization has been to her,” said Bruce Christensen, executive director of Mountain Valley Developmental Services. “It’s a personal commitment to being a friend to the people you work with that so strongly contributes to their success.”
The goal of the Mountain Valley’s Vail program is to teach mentally and physically challenged adults to live on their own and lead more independent lives. And the “guys” in the Vail program have flourished under Char’s tutelage, said Betsy Mueller, the program coordinator in Vail.
“A lot of the guys, when they started, they couldn’t ride the bus alone. There was no way they could think about picking up a knife and cooking themselves dinner,” Mueller said. “Now they live in their own apartment and they can pretty much do what they want, when they want.”
And according to the parents of those Char helped, she did an incredible job.
“There was no way when Danny started the program that I could have ever believed he’d be doing the things he’s doing now,” said Amy Shapira, whose son Danny is in the Vail program. “If this accident had happened a few years ago, there was no way the guys could have gotten on without her. Now, because of her, they can go on.”
Char had handed over management of the Vail program and was working as Mountain Valley’s director of vocational services, meaning she supervised all the people in the program who had jobs.
Larry Vasquez, who is in the Vail program, said Char still spent a lot of time in Vail helping him find a job and live a better life.
“She was like a mom to me,” Vasquez said. “I’m going to miss her a lot. She helped me with a lot of problems.”
Ian Bauer, who is also in the Vail program, said Char was one of his best friends.
“My life is a lot better because of her,” Bauer said.
Stewart said the job she, her co-workers and Char did for 18 years was no ordinary job. It was at times rewarding and at other times mentally exhausting, she said.
“It’s like if you were a construction worker and carried around a 100-pound beam on your shoulder all day long,” Stewart said. “It can be that exhausting.”
But Char was revelling in the guys’ achievements up until a few hours before Wednesday’s tragic crash, Mueller said.
“The last time I talked to her she was so happy because three of the guys had gone down to Denver to a baseball game,” Mueller said. “She was so excited they were having a good time. Two of them had never been to town without staff and she was so thrilled and so proud of the guys.”
Ann Deyarmond, another co-worker, said Char had faith in the people in her program and in her co-workers.
“Char believed you can live as independently and as full a life as possible, no matter what your disability,” Deyarmond said. “Char never gave up on anybody and she helped us not to get frustrated and give upon people.”
Deyarmond also said Char’s presence was always calming.
“I’ve seen her bring people out of a psychotic breakdown,” Deyarmond said. “She can talk to them, reach them and bring them out of it.
“You knew when Char was there, everything was going to be OK,” she said.
Char also taught accounting at Colorado Mountain College, coached Special Olympics teams and helped start the Glenwood Springs weaving shop where the people in the program sold rugs, scarves, shawls and other knit crafts.
“She just liked being outdoors,” her husband Terry said. “She liked to play golf and we liked to go to the Rockies and Avalanche games in Denver. We’d gone to a Rockies game with some people from work Tuesday night.”
Terry himself frequently volunteered with the guys in Char’s programs.
“Char and Terry were such an incredible team,” Deyarmond said. “They both gave so much. They would even take clients into their homes.”
The cause of Wednesday’s accident is still under investigation, said Trooper Don Brown of the Colorado State Patrol. But Char did not lose control of her Explorer right away, he said.
“Initially, she just drifted off the road but she didn’t lose control. She hit a delineator post with the side mirror, just clipped it and pulled back onto roadway,” Brown said. “A lot of times, when a person drifts off the road, they over steer getting back on and that’s when they lose control.”
A driver who drifts off the road should stay calm and not make any drastic driving maneuvers, he said.
“Let off the accelerator, don’t slam on brakes and gradually get back on highway,” Brown said. “Don’t make any drastic steering movements.”
Co-worker Stewart said Char could turn just about any problem into a success.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s an alcoholic, a schizophrenic, a person with dual personality –she will find a way to make the person have absolutely the most positive life they could have,” Stewart said.
Co-worker Teri Smith said Char taught the men in the program to rely on each other.
“They supported each other rather than having to depend on Char,” Smith said.
The community has lost an amazing person, Christensen said .
“I think it’s a horrible thing, not only for our organization but more importantly, for the community,” Christensen said. “Most of the people she worked with are now pretty independent and they have become a part of the community.”