Theresa Gardner water painting.

How to be a self advocate


Apostrophe published Theresa Gardner’s story back in 2012. Her story is a great example of how to be a self advocate:

  • She tries new things.
  • She’s constantly on the go.
  • She takes care of herself.
  • She cares about friends and family.
  • And she speaks up when she has an opinion.

Read her story below:

Advocate, artist, swimmer, employee…Theresa Gardner’s life is anything but dull

A few years ago, Theresa Gardner noticed that an art group was meeting in the community room of her apartment building. She stopped in to learn more about it and has been painting watercolors ever since.

Mix that curiosity and willingness to try new things with a need to be busy, the courage to be persistent and her deeply felt sense of justice, and you begin to glimpse Theresa’s life.

Theresa Gardner

Theresa Gardner

“If I sat here and twiddled my thumbs, I’d be so bored,” laughed Theresa, who lives in Helena, Mont.

Quite the contrary, Theresa has a long list of interests, beginning with the Montana Independent Living Project (MILP).

Theresa, who is 37, has worked for the nonprofit for 16 years as a part-time clerical assistant. In addition, as a woman with cerebral palsy, she participates in MILP’s work to promote the independence of all people with disabilities.

“Theresa is a great advocate,” said Bob Maffit, MILP executive director. “She can be informal and laugh with you, but then be very focused, whether it’s talking to a government entity about not providing services properly or testifying at the legislature.”

The Montana Legislature’s latest round of budget cuts (2012), including those to the Medicaid Waiver Program, are particularly frustrating for Theresa.

“I wish that instead of making it so hard, they would try to make life easier for people with disabilities. If certain legislators had to live the life of a person with disabilities for a day, maybe they wouldn’t want to cut so much,” she said.

Theresa credits her parents, Judy and Dale Gardner, with teaching her to speak up for herself as well as others.

“They didn’t raise me in a box,” she said. “They let me be as independent as possible and never treated me like I couldn’t do something. They also told me that if I need help, to ask for it.”

On the go

Theresa lives in a sunny apartment with Missy the cat. Along with a Precious Moments collection, photos and other personal treasures, adding warmth to the open kitchen and living area is an impressive number of equine trophies.

Theresa took to horses as a young child and became even more enamored after her mother started an equine program for people with disabilities. Riding helped Theresa stretch and strengthen her leg muscles as well as her torso.

“I’ve had horses all of my life, and we put Theresa on one by the time she was four,” said Judy Gardner, who offered the program for more than 20 years.

Rather than over-protecting her, Theresa’s mother realized that her daughter needed to learn by doing.

“You can’t do everything for them even if they can’t get around as quickly or go as far as other kids. You have to let them learn by doing, just like everyone else. They have to do things to be able to get through the bad,” said Judy.

Of the many equine events that Theresa participated in, the highlight was attending the 1991 International Special Olympics in St. Paul, Minn.

Not only did she earn a gold medal for her horseback riding skills, she met Bill Cosby, Hulk Hogan and Debbie Boone among other celebrities.

These days, Gardner’s passion for physical activity includes weekly sessions in the pool at a local health club where she exercises her legs and arms and generally just has fun. In addition to the freedom of movement she feels in the water, it also gives her another freedom.

“I’m out of my chair. Otherwise, I’m in the chair 16 hours a day, so anything I can do to get out of it, I’m there,” she said.

Still, she doesn’t let being in a wheelchair hold her back from the occasional bowling game, going to rodeos and the county fair or enjoying other special events.

Following those who inspire

Patty Duke’s presentation on “Overcoming Obstacles,” part of a Women’s Health Expo at the Helena Civic Center, was a particularly inspirational event for Theresa who was able to sit in the front row and then meet the Oscar winner.

Even as Theresa finds inspiration in the stories and experiences of others who don’t give up, many of those around her find inspiration in her in own tenacity, including her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Tina Veroulis.

“We just reconnected this summer, and it was refreshing for me to see her as an adult. She is a lovely lady and a delight,” said Tina.

Tina was teaching at Four Georgians Elementary School in Helena when she first met Theresa. Inspired by her, Tina created a teaching unit around living with disabilities and invited people to come and talk to the children about their own experiences. She had the students “act as if” they had a particular disability to teach them empathy.

“When I moved to the Montessori program at Central School, I continued to teach that unit because I felt it was such a rewarding experience for children,” Tina said.

Raising awareness

Just a few weeks before Christmas, Theresa found herself somewhat in the spotlight when someone stole the bag of presents she had just purchased for friends and family from the back of her wheelchair. Theresa wasn’t aware of the theft until she was boarding the bus and asked the driver to make sure that her shopping bag was safe.

Though shocked, she took control of the situation and called the police and the retailer (who quickly agreed to replace the merchandise). When interviewed by the city newspaper, Theresa spoke more about her outrage of someone targeting a person on a fixed income than she did about being a victim.

Her attitude speaks volumes about her independent spirit.

“I have a lot of people who have inspired me and taught me that if you put your mind to it, you can do it,” Theresa said.

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