Providing a Safe Haven For Adults with Disabilities

Meet Susan Rose Onan-Swartz, Executive Director at Brickways, a Michigan-based 501c3 non-profit corporation serving adults with disabilities. 

Born in Lapeer, Michigan in a working-class family, Susan wrote her own destiny despite the challenges she faced all her life. School was hard and so was home. Getting married right after high school put a hold on college and also because her father was not willing to pay for her tuition. After the divorce she took on jobs to care for her daughter, but nothing was permanent. She had a hard time fending for herself at the time living in Florida and then back in Lapeer. Finally in 1994, ten years after the divorce, she graduated from Ferris State University with a degree in accounting. 

She came to Brickways in 2001 for herself, given her pending divorce and the need to take care of her family. Twenty years later, she is the Executive Director of the non-profit for which she is grateful to Mary Jean Brick, the founder of Brickways. She helped Susan find her purpose and find unique ways to serve at the organization. She started off as a Finance Director and was promoted to the position of Executive in 2012. Currently, because of the lack of funding, she takes care of the finances as well. 

Talking about the organization, she says, BrickWays was formed over 40 years ago to create a home of their own for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities for persons who were previously housed in institutions. Adults with disabilities need to be a part of the community and not apart from it. We accomplish this by living, working, and participating in life alongside each other. BrickWays provides housing options specifically designed to meet the needs of adults with disabilities, that supports and expects growth in personal responsibility and social integration through supportive housing, life skill coaching, and experiential learning.”

The quality of housing and social learning options offered by the non-profit are the most sought after. Although COVID affected the social learning programs, they continued with the smaller groups. They provide a variety of activities to their customers, ranging from drumming lessons by a professional musician, staff-led painting and sewing lessons to camping and hiking excursions. The customer’s preference is prioritized here. They are given questionnaires on which they can provide feedback and can add their own ideas as well.

Even after two divorces, being widowed once, and being a cancer survivor, Onan-Swartz is standing strong and loves what she does. She has since remarried and is working to further the growth of her organization. Coming from a profit world, it took her time to adjust to an environment that was concerned with relationships over profit, but she did so gracefully. Finding funding for the non-profit is always a struggle, and the donations have decreased tremendously in the past years. They need to raise the required funds, so they can better focus on the well-being of the clients. Their staff works at a minimum wage even though they are overqualified for the job. They believe in the mission and the cause of the organization. The Bricks way team is grateful to their staff and the donors who are helping them thrive in challenging times. 

Susan has dedicated her life to the non-profit and has made it her life’s purpose to serve the people who come to them. The challenges don’t seem to end, but she hopes that they will get through the tough phase soon. Leaving a message for the readers, she says, “BrickWays does great things, but it is not anyone who carries the burden or who is responsible for the glory. It is each of us, wherever we are in life, doing what we can every day. Our efforts together is what creates meaning, change and shows God’s love to others. We are responsible, wherever we are today in our lives, to do what we can, to be decent to others, especially when we disagree and always be the person who will cross the road to help another no matter who they are.”