Ecumen Trustee Debbie Cervenka Forges New Paths Supporting a Mission That Is Personal

The future looked bright for Ecumen Trustee Debbie Cervenka and her husband Bob.  They had just sold the highly successful company they built together and were making big plans for the next phase of their lives.  What happened next totally shattered their dreams— but gave Debbie the resolve to turn their life-changing event into a mission to help others.

Bob was walking up some stone steps one day when the stone broke and he slipped and fell backward about 15 feet, landing on his head. He suffered a massive head injury— so serious that doctors told her he would have to be in a nursing home for the rest of his life.  Debbie said no.  She would find another way.

“The doctors said I was overreaching— that I didn’t know what I was doing,” Debbie recalls.  “They didn’t know me.  It put me over the edge.”  She set out to find a better way and knocked on Ecumen’s door as a potential customer.

She knew exactly what she wanted for Bob: “dignity, respect and a real home.”  And as a board member, she knew Ecumen’s mission statement: “We create home for older adults wherever they choose to live.”

So if Bob Cervenka chooses to live somewhere other than a care center— even though that might present challenges— can that happen at an Ecumen community?  Debbie was asking if it could happen— not demanding.

Staff at Ecumen Lakeshore in Duluth took an in-depth look at Bob’s situation and made a proposal.  “They thought outside the box,” Debbie says.

Bob lives in an independent living apartment but has a regular care team, specifically selected based on his unique needs.  “What Ecumen did,” Debbie says, “is look at Bob as an individual, not as a number on a bed.”  There is a care team, picked based on compatibility with Bob, that meets regularly to adjust his care plan.  Debbie is also part of the team.

“Ecumen is all about listening to and knowing the person as an individual,” she says. “Too often in these situations, people completely lose their voice in their own care.”

Bob’s situation is somewhat unusual.  The 2011 head injury was not his first.  Rather, it was one of many.  Bob played high school and college football and had multiple concussions.  Then later, he went through the windshield of a car in a traffic accident.  The trauma added up over the years. 

Debbie is sure that Bob has chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — the disorder of many athletes who suffer sustained head trauma. Technically, the prevailing medical view is that CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem.  But a recent groundswell of evidence is pushing back on that point of view, and doctors have told her they believe Bob has CTE, which causes memory and behavioral issues.

And Debbie— “like a dog with a bone”— is now doing her part to not only change current thinking about CTE but also how care-giving institutions deal with people who have it.  Her experience with Ecumen leads her to believe there is a new model of care that can and should be developed for former athletes like Bob who are living with post-sports dementia.

When she was looking for the right care for Bob, one of the issues was that he is a relatively big man and very strong.  She noticed that most care centers are designed for frail, elderly people.  If adjustments— like bed size, room size and types of therapy— had to be made for Bob, what about all these other ex-athletes who need care now or will in the future?  “What does a facility look like for this particular type of dementia? What is the programming?” she asks.

Debbie is encouraging Ecumen to explore those questions, and she is also planning a proposal to the NFL, which has, as part of a pending $765 million lawsuit settlement with players, agreed to research the connection between football and brain injuries and the accommodations that need to be made to take care of former athletes.

Debbie is adept at forging new paths with her husband.  Bob, a mechanical engineer born and raised in Phillips, Wisc., was the co-founder of Phillips Plastics Corp., one of the largest private custom injection molding companies in the nation.  Debbie worked at the company as executive vice president and was on the board.  The company took big risks, innovated and made sound strategic decisions that kept it prosperous when many other plastics manufacturers were falling to global competition. Well before Bob’s accident, he and Debbie had decided the rest of their lives would be devoted to philanthropy.  “Many people touched us and helped us achieve what we did,” Debbie says.  “Our goal now is to give back.  It is a critical part of our lives.”

Both Bob and Debbie had grown up understanding the value of hard work.  Bob’s father died when he was 10.  Debbie’s father was a school teacher.  It wasn’t until much later in their lives that they had the means to start thinking about all the ways they could make a difference supporting the causes they believe in.

At the Cervenka house at Christmas time, the family celebration focused on helping teach the kids the importance of giving back.  Everyone was expected to advocate for an organization and detail the reasons why it should be supported.  “We wanted to touch more lives and in doing so, encourage others to want to do the same,” Debbie says.

One of the first places they gave back was to the town and people of Phillips, Wisc. The town had given financial and other support to Bob’s new enterprise when he and his partner had only minimal startup capital. As the company became successful, they created the AnnMarie foundation that provides annual financial support for high school scholarships, volunteer fire departments, nursing homes, youth sports teams, and other local projects that need help.  (Ann was Bob’s mother’s first name and Marie was the company co-founder’s mother’s first name.)

Other priorities are education and the environment. They have been major donors to the Nature Conservancy, Northland College, the University of Wisconsin—Madison and the University of Wisconsin—Stout.  And Ecumen has benefited from their philanthropy.

In fact, Debbie now leads the Ecumen Board of Trustees Philanthropy Committee. Debbie is focused on raising money for Ecumen in its non-profit role of innovating and problem-solving some of the major issues related to aging— such as improving dementia care, how to reduce hospitalizations of the elderly, improving the quality of rural health care, developing a steady workforce of caregivers and creating a fund to pay for the care of those Ecumen residents whose assets have been depleted. Her goal is to create a highly organized “culture of giving” at Ecumen that will provide on-going funding for initiatives beyond day-to-day operations.

“Debbie leads by example,” says Judy Blaseg, Ecumen’s vice president of philanthropy. “She combines compassion, vision and determination to focus on the big issues and get things done.”

The giving, Debbie says, is “joyful giving” because it helps people make the things that bring joy even better.