TOP 50 STL Person of the Week: Laura Hockensmith
Brian: Today we are joined by Ms. Laura Hockensmith representing our featured charity of the week, Pony Bird. Laura, thank you for joining me today.
Laura: Thank you so much for having me.
Brian: For those of you who may not know, Pony Bird is an exceptional place for special individuals. They provide 24-hour care for developmentally disabled, non-ambulatory children and adults……individuals who are unable to meet their daily living needs without assistance. Pony Bird’s six residential homes are located in Mapaville and DeSoto, Missouri, which is just 30 minutes south of St. Louis. Laura, can you tell us the story about how PonyBird came to be?
Laura: Absolutely, my brother Phillip Hockensmith was born in 1971 in Columbia, Missouri and at that time in the seventies there were not any homes that were appropriate for people with severe and mental disabilities as my brother had. So, in 1977 down in Jefferson County my parents, Sue and Dana Hockensmith, got together with a wonderful group of community individuals and together they raised the money to open the first home, which is located in Mapaville, Missouri. There were ten original individuals that lived at Pony Bird and my brother Phillip was one of them.
Brian: It’s such an amazing story and one that you’re so close to. What has it been like for you personally to grow up with this organization?
Laura: Pony bird is my second home. As I grew up, every Sunday we would go there after church. Yes, my brother was one of the individuals there, but all of the individuals became my brothers and sisters. It is an incredible part of our society, a small group of people. Not all of them have families; some of them are wards to the state. So, I’ve done community projects; I’ve had my friends go down and visit. It has just been a wonderful extension to my family and a wonderful need for the community.
Brian: Can you describe a little bit about what life is like for the special individuals that live at the Pony Bird homes?
Laura: Well, these individuals are a very special part of our society. There are very few people with as severe mental and physical disabilities as the ones at Pony Bird. A lot of them cannot walk; they cannot talk; hey can’t do anything on their own. Some of them can communicate with you, whether or not it’s shaking your hand or blinking at you or just giving you a nice little smile when you walk by. Their lives are completely different than the rest of ours and they need constant and consistent care everyday. They have 24-hour services with wonderful staff members that do become a part of their family since they are with them 24 hours a day. So, it’s a wonderful place and you see the love, but it is a very difficult life that they live and they depend on all of us to support them to get them what they need
Brian: So, you now have six homes within the organization, right? How many people live in the homes and how many people are there on staff?
Laura: Yes, there are two campuses and six homes. The most recent building is the Penrose Home, which was just opened last month.
Brian: How many people live in the homes?
Laura: All the homes are built so that they are not institutionalized. We wanted the homes to be very individual to them and the individual’s personality so they are not cramped, hospital-type homes. They are beautiful. They have lift systems. All the individuals have their own homes to give them the respect and the care that they all individually deserve to have, but all six of the buildings are completely different. But, they’re beautiful and they offer a wonderful home for these people.
Brian: About how many people do you have on staff?
Laura: I believe there are 130-150 staff members. Again, like I mentioned, they are the core group of this organization because without the love and care that they would give consistently since the family members can’t be there we depend on them so much.
Brian: So, here on TOP 50 STL we like to highlight special things about both the city and the surrounding region. I’ve heard many times that St. Louisans and Midwesterners are known to be very charitable people. Can you speak a little bit about some of the supporters you’ve had over the years, like any sports figures or large donors or anything like that?
Laura: Absolutely. Actually, at the end of last year, Matt Carpenter from the Cardinals came down and visited all the individuals with his wife. We have tremendous support in the community. Because the home is down in Jefferson County, we are still trying to reach out and get more sponsors and more awareness here in the St. Louis area. Jefferson County has been wonderful to Pony bird and we know that St. Louis will do that as well. We’ve had a lot of different sports figures, we have a lot of politicians that are very actively involved with this wonderful organization and we can’t wait to find more people out there to help us support Pony Bird.
Brian: I noticed some recent stories about our state government supporting some additional funding for developmental disability service providers. I wanted to ask you, how important is this funding and is there anything our listeners can do to show support for these initiatives?
Laura: Absolutely. Just recently, the governor was here in St. Louis signing a bill, which was a fantastic bill to support individuals in Missouri with disabilities. Our Executive Director, Sara Sacharski, was there with a few of our individuals to show our support and our gratitude. However, that money will be spread thin throughout the state and throughout all of the different organizations and different people that it needs to be able to help. Pony Bird is such a small group of that. Any time that you can talk to any of your legislators and try to get more funding for this special small group of our community or just getting out and donating yourself. Awareness for Pony Bird is the most important thing; if people know about it. Once you hear about it, you learn about it and you see it, you fall in love with it.
Brian: As a father myself, I can’t imagine how tough it is to care for a son or a daughter with special needs. I’m very thankful there are facilities and caretakers out there that provide support for those that need it the most. For those who may be interested, what is the best way to get involved or support Pony Bird?
Laura: Thank you so much for bringing that up. Again, Pony Bird is a family and there are so many people out there that would just like you to come and visit and become a part of their lives. They do not have a lot of family and support. There are thirty-seven individuals that are there that have family members, but the rest out of the 60 do not. So, anytime that you can reach out, you can come down with a church group, with a neighborhood group, do community hours or of course you can get involved in a different way, which would be monetarily. We can always accept donations for anything that you would like it to go to. We have residential programs. We have building funds. We have things that go directly to the individual. So, any way that you can get involved would be fantastic.
Brian: That’s great! It’s really special to see your family take care of so many families and I have to mention that your family also takes care of mine, because we share a special place that you help run, the Lakeside Children’s Academy, where both of my sons have been since they were 12 weeks old. And I just wanted to give a quick shout-out to everybody at Lakeside because it’s a tremendous facility and we have nothing but wonderful things to say about everyone there. I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about the history of Lakeside as well and what the facility is like.
Laura: Lakeside is located in West County. We’re at the intersection of Big Bend and Dougherty Ferry. We opened up in 1992 and we are a state licensed facility. We have children 6 weeks to 12 years old and we’re licensed for 149 children. What makes Lakeside different, as a childcare center, is the family feel and our teachers. We’re able to retain our teachers for years and years. We are just like Pony Bird, like a family at Lakeside. My parents have really set the tone as to how we want to run a business and of course that all goes into the fun and loving consistent care that we give our kiddos. We are always looking to meet new families, so come on in if you would like to see Lakeside. But, I really appreciate Brian and those nice things that he says about us and just know we really all love our jobs and we love our kiddos that are there with us every day.
Brian: It’s fantastic! I love walking into the daycare every single day and most days Laura is there to greet us, and the staff there is just fantastic. You know, Lakeside and Pony Bird are both tremendous organizations. So, Laura I really want to thank you for coming in today and telling us all about Pony Bird. I’d encourage all of our listeners out there to check out the website and like their Facebook page and please consider making a donation or getting involved in any way to support such a great cause.