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SHERIDAN — Child Advocacy Services of the Big Horns has chosen Reta Onstott as the 2014 Champion for Children. The Sheridan based nonprofit presented her award at the sixth Annual Light of Hope Breakfast at the Best Western Sheridan Center this morning.
“Quite frankly, Reta should have won a long time ago,” said Susan Carr, executive director of CASBH. “The amount of work this woman has done throughout the state for child care is breathtaking.”
Onstott has been a Sheridan resident since 1968.
Originally an accountant struggling to find a babysitter with which she felt comfortable leaving her 3-year-old, her journey began by deciding to open her home to other children and ended with the founding of such agencies as the Child Development Center, the Children’s Center day care and even CASBH itself.
Big needs in a small town
Now married with three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, Onstott said her original intention was to have six children in her home.
But after advertising in the paper that she was opening an in-home day care, she ended up taking in 12 with 56 on the waiting list and quickly realized there was a need not being filled in Sheridan.
Her first growth was to open the Sheridan County Day Care using the Sunday school rooms at the old Presbyterian Church.
Here she started a nonprofit organization, formed a board of directors and started to recruit experts including speech pathologists, child psychologists and early childhood specialized educators to join the cause.
“We had no money to pay them, so bless their hearts for volunteering,” she said.
She even enrolled in summer school to learn what each specialist did so she could properly hire and monitor them.
At a time when licensing procedures had not yet made their way to Sheridan, she reached out to legislators in Cheyenne and asked them to create a process.
She received some backlash for this effort with members of the community saying she was trying to kill the in-home day care.
“I’m all for in-home day care as long as they are safe and properly administered,” she said. “If anyone wanted to babysit they still could, they just had to apply so someone could come and do a simple fire safe and child safe inspection.”
In the end, the efforts benefitted all, as Onstott and her board were able to help all facilities get grants and supplies through the state once they were licensed.
Another issue being overlooked at the time was the care of children with special needs.
At the time, Johnson County did not have a special education program and Sheridan’s program began at school age. Special education students were being bussed from Buffalo to Sheridan to attend Hill School and options for preschoolers were limited.
Onstott took them all in.
As the needs grew, so did the building space.
In 1973, the next step was to purchase and expand upon a small clinic up the hill, which is now the Children’s Center.
Onstott says that at this point she was overseeing 150 children and 56 employees.
Along her journey, she took on other adventures including multiple trips to Cheyenne to lobby for women’s right and child care needs.
“They didn’t have many women legislators back then and I wanted this group of old-timer men to pay for child care for single moms,” Onstott said.
And the only way she could think to convince them to do that was to take away their money, literally.
“I took each of their billfolds for 24 hours and told them they had to eat and live off what was in their pockets because that was what a lot of single moms were dealing with. And by golly, we got it passed,” she said.
Onstott is also recognized for her contribution to the creation of CASBH.
She said it all started when a young girl was kidnapped and murdered in Sheridan and the entire community banded together to go shoulder-to-shoulder to search for her body.
After learning of the Court Appointed Special Advocates service in Colorado, 11 of the concerned community members flew out to learn more about CASA and bring it home with them.
“I don’t want to say I was one of the founders but a lot of us just said, ‘There’s a need so we’re going,’” she said. “And that’s the great thing about Sheridan, if there’s a need, they make it happen.”
Onstott charged full speed ahead until 1990 when her family convinced her that 12 hours a day, seven days a week, was simply too much and she stepped down from being director of the Children’s Center.
This was not a retirement, but rather another opportunity for growth.
“The board hired a new director and after two months she said she didn’t want ‘those funny children,’ meaning the special needs ones, at her facility, so they moved them out to the Cottonwood building, then called the Nerco building, and we rented office space on the second floor to house the handicap program,” she said.
Onstott stayed on to be director of the new handicap specific program, the Child Development Center.
She fully retired in 1993 at which point the CDC built a new building, where they are currently housed, to accommodate continued growth.
“A lot of the service agencies we see in Sheridan today would not be here without her,” Carr said. “You didn’t see that kind of advocacy for children before her. I wish I could accomplish half of what she has in my lifetime.”
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