Staff Spotlight Angela Cooper

Kindness is Free. A Staff Spotlight on Dr. Angela Cooper

After earning her associate’s degree, Angela Cooper decided it was enough…until she wanted to learn just a bit more.

She kept learning just a bit more again and again until she added a Dr. in front of her name.

Cooper is a regional childcare administrator for HDI’s Child Care Aware program. Her program provides technical assistance to childcare providers throughout the community. She oversees 18 counties in the south central and southeastern parts of Kentucky. But before all that, she worked in early childhood education, working at a Lexington corporate childcare program. She moved to Somerset in Pulaski County, and started looking for ways to advance her position.

“I had nothing but a high school diploma when I started there,” Cooper said.

A supervisor named Amy Booth who had a connection to HDI took Cooper under her wing, connecting her to a program that would help her pay for it and helping her work it around her schedule. In 2002, Cooper earned a Childhood Development Associate. It only took a semester. She intended to start small. She didn’t end there.

“I just got bitten by the bug,” she said. “I went back in, talked to my supervisor, and said ‘Hey, I think I kind of like this.’”

She applied at Lexington Community College and earned her associate’s in 2004. She thought, once again, that would be the end of it. Then she earned a bachelor’s, and then a master’s by the time she started working at HDI, and now, recently, her PhD, finishing a 21-year journey.

“I was always interested in children and how quickly they would learn concepts,” she said. “Their mind was like a little sponge. Every child, no matter what child was in your classroom, if you could figure out how to meet that child where they were, you could help them develop into the person they were going to be.”

Before she journeyed down the path to her PhD, she had already seen what this could look like in action, but as she furthered her education, she saw the effects her education was having very quickly.

“Once I started going to college and sticking theory to the practice, it opened a whole new world for me,” she said. “I wanted to take everything I was learning back into my classroom. I wanted to introduce new concepts, I found new ways to lesson plan, I found new ways to teach, I understood more about developmentally appropriate practice with children and why we teach the way we do…It was just a job before day to day before I started understanding the why to my job.”

Now that she’s reached the highest echelon of education, Cooper has no intention of slowing down or resting on her laurels. She’ll take a break for the holidays, but then it’s time to figure out what comes next.

“It’s left me relieved that I am finished, yet energized in what can I do now,” she said. “Where can I go with this? What else can I study? How can I answer the questions that this research brought about?”

Cooper’s education appears to have paid off. Her region has consistently high quality ratings, and held those even during COVID. And in her position she gets the chance to mentor other service providers – which not only benefits them, but the community beyond as well.

And she also gets the chance to mentor and cultivate a strong staff – something her own mentor did for her.

“I had a supervisor who was a cheerleader. She saw in me what I did not see in myself and really encouraged my growth and development,” she said. “She built a foundation for me and then I decided to keep going step after step.”

Outside of her career and academic pursuits, Cooper is an avid hiker. She’s hiked many of the trails in the Big South National Forest and Daniel Boone National Parks. She’s putting it on hold for now to spend some time with her new grandchild this holiday. She also summed up her core philosophy in three words: family, kindness, and inclusion.

“Kindness is free,” she said. “There’s not a reason in the world not to be kind to anyone or anything. We are all just here on this big green and blue sphere floating around for the good of each other…I’m just like a big old mother hen. I just want to gather everyone and everything under my wings.”

staff spotlight photo of Calisa Fitzpatrick

Good communication makes the world go round! A staff spotlight on Calisa Fitzpatrick

Calisa Fitzpatrick thinks good communication makes the world go round.

For her, there is immense power in a team working together towards a common goal. And as a member of the Evaluations Team, a big part of her job is helping ensure that HDI is doing that in every way it can.

“We work with partners to help inform them about the impact their programs or services are making on the individuals they intend to serve and hopefully provide them with information to inform decision-making to improve those programs and services,” Fitzpatrick said. “We ask a lot of questions, have lots of conversations, and then come up with a plan to evaluate all the things they’re doing.”

She didn’t set out to be involved in evaluations, but she fell into it, as she puts it. Fitzpatrick Holds a master’s in Health Administration and a psychology undergraduate and directed an outpatient program for adolescents at a behavioral health hospital. Her work has always had a strong focus on helping young people address their own challenges with mental health and reducing stigma around receiving services. What she does now still serves the same mission, but looks at it from a different angle.

Her story is not a unique one. Many from the evaluations team didn’t start there, and Fitzpatrick sees that as a boon to the team.

“We bring a lot of diverse perspectives to our work, experiences from the healthcare world, mental health services, education, or research-based activities,” she said.

Fitzpatrick’s path was a strange one. She hadn’t been at HDI for more than two months before COVID-19 changed everything and had to effectively relearn her new job after having barely learned it on the first place. This is where her teamwork proved incredibly beneficial.

“We have a lot of camaraderie on the unit. We get a lot of support from each other,” she said. “Coworkers just understood where we all were, and they were willing to work through that together.”

Likewise, getting to know those colleagues – both directly in evaluations and in other partnerships.

“I enjoy the relationships that are being built. That sharing of knowledge has been super important,” she said. “I appreciate the conversations with grant partners like the Kentucky Department of Education, the Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities. There’s so many people that are really dedicated to their work, so getting to know them and how they think about the work they do and seeing that passion for it has been inspiring.”

As someone who values teamwork so much, it comes as no surprise that Fitzpatrick loves sports too. She’s an avid runner and a rookie pickleball player with a desire to compete.

But it’s not just the teamwork that she values, as you can find her taking a nice run, or

She wants to get her heart going and she likes to challenge herself to go higher. She’s already run several marathons. Now, she’s considering running another.

“It takes a lot of discipline to get out there and constantly do it,” she said. “When something is demanding mentally or physically, that’s something I like. It might sound like ‘Oh, why would anyone want to do that,’ but I like being pushed.”

Ultimately though, a lot of her life comes down to healthy communications, healthy relationships, and healthy collaboration.

“That’s so imperative to the work that we do,” she said. “My faith guides me to do to others as you would have them do to you. I think that’s where a lot of teamwork and collaboration stems from…I also think I can learn from others. I don’t know it all, so I value that collaboration.”

Staff photo Jay Hatcher on a dark blue background

Coding a Brighter Future. A staff spotlight on Jay Hatcher

There’s an alchemy to coding, a place where art meets science, a perfect fusion of technical know-how and creativity.  Jay Hatcher has lived in that space since he was a kid.

“I’ve been a software engineer for about 17 years, but I’ve been learning to program computers since I was 10,” Hatcher said. “I’ve always enjoyed the creative artistry and technical challenge of getting a computer to do what you want it to. I like figuring out how to translate real-world problems and goals into a working application, either to meet a need or just to see what’s possible. It’s the most complex and creative field of engineering I know.”

Hatcher is a software engineer at HDI. He’s been here for more than a decade, and during that time he’s been involved in web design, software engineering, and software tools for HDI projects.  Lately, he’s also been working on a project called Ucalculia, which seeks to provide a resource for an often-overlooked disability known as dyscalculia.

“I’ve been at HDI since 2011,” Hatcher said. “I was drawn to HDI’s mission to help people of all abilities and a focus on meeting real human needs rather than just producing a consumable product like so much of the software industry.”

Hatcher also sees some overlap in HDI’s mission and his own work.

“I like that we focus on enabling and empowering others,” he said. “In my mind, software engineering is about empowerment, making new opportunities and possibilities a reality for people.”

Within HDI itself, Hatcher also finds a lot of internal systems that focus on empowering people as well – including a highly collaborative environment filled with people that bring out the best in one another.

“I’m proud of the team I’m a part of and the way we work together to figure out solutions to problems,” he said. “I’ve done some neat projects, big and small, but my ability to learn new approaches to software development, try out creative solutions to problems, and learn what challenges need solving wouldn’t be possible without the great team we have here at HDI.”

In his personal life, Hatcher loves spending time with his family, including his two sons, Eli, age 9, and Liam, age 6. He’s a heavy reader, focusing on non-fiction and speculative fiction. A couple recent favorites include The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler and Galileo’s Error by Philip Goff. He’s also a longtime fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He considers his faith a major guiding star too – one that he feels deeply relates to his work at HDI.

“Living out my faith is the most important thing to me. Acting with compassion, striving to understand others, and learning to connect to people along life’s journey has enriched my life and helped me to avoid the tendency to live in my head. I’m glad I can work at a place where our values align so well with my personal convictions,” he said. “I could not ask for a more rewarding place to work, and I’m thrilled to see the great things HDI will do in the future.”

Staff Spotlight Richelle Gabbard

People make her happy! A staff spotlight on Richelle Gabbard

Richelle Gabbard calls herself a people person.

She considers herself an extravert. She loves to learn about people, and loves to help them solve their problems. And as a part of HDI’s HR team, those are good traits to have.

“When I’m around people and I get to talk to people and get to know them personally outside of their position…I get to know them for them,” she said. “For me, that’s important. I love that I get to do that.”

Gabbard is HDI’s Human Resources Payroll Assistant. That means that she helps ensure that everyone receives their paychecks in a timely and orderly manner. But that’s far from all she does.

“I am the go-to person for STEPS positions, temporary positions, student positions,” Gabbard said. “Any type of HR question, you can come to me. Any payroll question, you can come to me…I’m basically the person to go to other than Jessica [Whiting, HR Manager].”

Gabbard started working with UK through a STEPS position, which refers to a type of temporary position filled through the university’s staffing agency. Prior to that, she’d worked in management, a very different place from where she ended up. At the time, she’d been off work for eight months following the birth of her son.

“I wanted to find something that was more suited to his schedule. I wanted to not work weekends. That was a big thing for me,” Gabbard said. “I started shopping around on the jobs posting at UK. I ended up landing a position with STEPS.”

She started working in an accounting setting in the administrative team, starting part time at 10 hours a week. She steadily graduated to 20 hours a week, but then COVID hit.

“My position completely changed because I was doing filing. Obviously you can’t do filing from home,” she said. “That’s when Jessica started changing things…She became my supervisor and my position has done nothing but grow since then.”

Gabbard has liked the experience she’s had working at HDI. She feels like it’s a good, supportive workplace where people respect one another.

“I feel like we’re all connected. Nobody really feels higher than anybody else,” she said. “I feel like I can have a conversation with anyone here…I don’t feel like I’m a number.”

She also feels like HDI is a diverse workplace – something that is to its advantage.

“We have our own projects and our own needs, but I feel like it’s all one unit,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’re here for one mission.”

At home, Gabbard is working on finding balance in her life. With her son headed to preschool, she finds herself with a lot more free time and is using that time to discover new hobbies, find a balance in her life, let herself be introspective, and spend more time with her friends. And that’s a good life for her.

“I’m a minimalistic person. I don’t need a lot to make me happy. I definitely don’t think financial success is a motivating factor,” Gabbard said. “I would rather love what I do and not be a billionaire than have all the money in the world and be unhappy.”  

Staff Photo of Sally Dannenburg, UK HDI Logo top left

Quilting a Life of Learning. A staff spotlight on Sally Dannenberg

Sally Dannenberg loves to learn and watch people learn. Maybe that has something to do with why she enjoys working with children so much – after all, for them, every day is an opportunity for new lessons and new adventures.

“I’ve always been interested in working with children,” she said. “I enjoy all the things that they’re learning every day all the time, and every day is kind of like a challenge for them. It’s something new. They see things a lot differently than we do.”

Dannenberg, a research and development associate with HDI’s Child Care Aware program, has been involved in childcare across multiple states for about 15 years. She started as a pediatric nurse before getting involved with childcare, including the Child Care Aware program in Minnesota. It’s part of what brought her to HDI – she saw a lot of the good work that the program did there, and saw a chance to continue the good work she’d already been doing.

“My original position was with Race to the Top, which was a grant to improve child care in Kentucky,” she said, adding that there were a number of equivalent grants across the US. “I was interested in that because I’d seen some of the changes they’d made in Minnesota through this grant.”

By now, she’s been with HDI for nine years. She’s been involved in a number of childcare-related projects within HDI, including courses for childcare providers – something she says she’s really proud of. Part of what’s kept her here is that she has the chance to constantly learn and grow as she works.

“There’s always something new to learn,” she said. “I learn constantly from all the other projects at HDI.”

The other part? She says it’s the people.

“They all have the same focus,” she said. “We care about people from birth to death…Childcare Aware is trying to help people get that best start that we can.”

While Dannenberg gets plenty of chances to learn on the job, she also loves to learn at home. She has a list of skills she wants to learn. One she’s best known for is quilting and sewing, to the point where she created a quilt that was raffled off as part of HDI’s 50th anniversary. If you ask her about it, though, she’ll tell you she’s not talented, she’s persistent. She’s stayed persistent since junior high.

She has a list of skills that she wants to learn beyond that. And through her persistence, she has learned a few – caning chairs, upholstering furniture – including a chair that was falling apart. Currently, she’s working on learning stained glass.

“It’s just kind of like a bucket list,” she said. “Usually, it’s something I want around my house that I couldn’t go out and buy. I want to say ‘I did that.’”

She also mentions that her family is the most important thing to her – and with them, she can put all that childcare experience to use to make sure they get the chance to grow up right.

“Even though my grandkids live far away, I still make the time to drive or fly to see them,” she said. “Just letting them know about how I grew up and teaching them things they can use the rest of their life too.”

Quilt with blue and white UK branding
Quilt by Sally Dannenberg