'I'm like the old cheerleader'

As one AiMHi employee has always been her own best advocate, it was a natural fit for Penny Soderna-Sutton to slip into the position of peer advocate for those with special needs in Prince George.

Soderena-Sutton, who has a developmental disability, has always found it important to stand up for herself and to encourage others to shine by providing lessons in self-advocacy through her work and during her many volunteer hours. She started as a volunteer at AiMHi and moved into a paid position where she leads self-advocates to have a stronger voice.

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As a volunteer at AiMHI, Soderena-Sutton sat on the board for a decade and was the policy committee chair.

Soderena-Sutton is a member of the P.G. Self-Advocates Caucus, the Prince George Advisory Committee on Accessibility and the Community Living BC Committee. She's also engaged in various activities with Inclusion BC, St. Andrew's Church, Toastmasters and the Handy Circle Resource Society board, which provides and promotes public awareness of the needs of the disabled as well as offering peer counseling, information and referral services for those with special needs.

"I was going over all the things I volunteer for and that's like going over my whole life," said Soderena-Sutton. "There's one thing I hate doing and that's talking about me. It makes me feel like I'm bragging."

Julie O'Reilly, manager at AiMHi, said that Soderena-Sutton is the great equalizer at AiMHi and makes sure everyone feels valued and heard within the walls at 950 Kerry St. and that everything is communicated in plain language that can be understood by one and all.

There are many challenges in life and communication barriers should be the least of anyone's worries.

During her off hours, Soderena-Sutton hosts the Toastmasters club that meets weekly at AimHi. She has taken on mentoring three women during those meetings to help them overcome their shyness.

"I'm like the old cheerleader - rah, rah - and I help them through whatever they need to do to get themselves going in the right direction," said Soderena-Sutton. "I make sure they're not left in the cold and sometimes when they don't actually say what they want I know what they want and help them with those things, too."

As a mentor for self-advocation, Soderena-Sutton believes reinforcement is key.

"I tell them they are their own person and no one should tell them what to do in their own lives," said Soderena-Sutton. "You and only you can prove to people that you can do whatever you want."

It was a proud moment for Soderena-Sutton when one of the women she mentored at Toastmasters competed against her in a spontaneous speech challenge and took top honours.

"I just had to give her the biggest hug and I said 'See? I told you, you could do this!" she said, clapping her hands as she recalled the feeling of excitement as the student surpassed the teacher.

In April 1991, Soderena-Sutton and two others founded the Prince George Self-Advocates Caucus and over the years she has traveled within B.C. to be a strong voice at the table to ensure that those with special needs would be seen as valuable assets to their communities as employees and as volunteers.

"The two others burned out but I wasn't burning out - I have a fire in me and I have my gusto and I was going to continue to get the message across," she said.

Giving back is important to Soderena-Sutton so when AiMHi donated space to hold the Prince George Self-Advocates Caucus meetings, she and other caucus members came up with a plan. Caucus members volunteer their time as baggers at Value Village because the store donates to AiMHi. During their time at the second hand store putting items into bags for customers at the counter, Soderena-Sutton and other volunteers would talk to patrons to raise awareness about how AiMHi helps those with special needs in the community.

Soderena-Sutton also volunteers to help with the Christmas Kettle campaign that is held before the holidays every year to raise funds for the Salvation Army and has canvassed her neighbourhood for the Red Shield Appeal, another fundraising program for the Salvation Army.

Soderena-Sutton has sat on the City of PG Advisory Committee on Accessibility and became chair, giving her time to advocate and advise council on matters that affect people with disabilities, seniors and those with mobility issues and to ensure inclusion in the community for everyone no matter what the barrier.

She has also been a member of the Ladies of the Moose and volunteered her time making crafts to sell and also was a server at events that the Ladies of the Moose would cater at the lodge. Soderena-Sutton volunteers at St. Andrew's Church where she's been a member for decades, sat on the board and as part of the fellowship group would volunteer at the Golden Age Tea held monthly at the Civic Centre. She would serve the seniors or take guests' coats at the door.

Soderena-Sutton, whose paid position is funded by the province of British Columbia, volunteered her time to be involved with Inclusion BC, which is an advocacy board in Vancouver, and which AiMHi is a member.

She also volunteered for 10 years as a board member of the Canadian Association for Community Living, which is a family-based association helping people with intellectual disabilities and their families to lead the way in advancing inclusion in their communities.

Sitting on the board of Community Living BC for a decade led to sitting on the editorial committee because of Soderena-Sutton's great communication skills and advocacy work.

"Everybody in the community is advocating for something," said Soderena-Sutton. "It's for their own personal life, volunteering somehow some way or just trying to fit in. It doesn't matter if you're rich, poor or destitute or that you can't read or write - that person just wants to fit in."

Volunteering is a big part of that for a lot of people.

"When I started volunteering at St. Andrew's that gave me confidence to go out into the community," said Soderena-Sutton. "If I could do that I could do anything."

Flip through The Citizen's Volunteer City series, featuring stand-out volunteers in Prince George:

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