Editor's Note: This story is from Luminous, an annual magazine by the Perham Focus that shines a spotlight on notable local women. The magazine was published in November. Read Luminous online in its entirety by CLICKING HERE.
Tiffany Schroeer carries her compassion and love for people, fun sense of humor, and ‘kid whisperer’ talent with her everywhere she goes, injecting those qualities into everything she does. With her bright smile and listening ear, she wins people over and forms quick connections with them. Children, especially, are drawn to her — and that’s a really valuable trait in her line of work.
Schroeer is the director of Empowering Kids, a nonprofit program in Perham that provides services, support and resources to kids with autism or other social challenges. She works with children who are on the autism spectrum or have other emotional or behavioral disorders, like ADHD (attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder).
“Tiffany’s a favorite,” says Christi Stoll, the general manager at Empowering Kids. “All the kids love Tiffany.”
Empowering Kids was founded by Perham woman Kim Nelson and her husband, Kenny, in 2017, and is the only nonprofit autism program between Moorhead and Minneapolis. It offers developmental and behavioral intervention services, mental health services, social skills programming, transitional and independent living services for young adults, and more.
Designed to be a safe space for learning and fun, the relatively new program already has a solid reputation for being high-quality and affordable. The families who utilize it, praise it.
As the director, Schroeer plays a leading role in almost everything that happens at Empowering Kids. She oversees therapy sessions and group learning activities with kids, like sensory gym, art projects, and computer lab time. She works with young adult clients to help them find their strengths and train for jobs. She organizes sensory-friendly community events, and meets with local business owners to show them how their shops can be more sensory-friendly.
As of this writing, she was gearing up for Empowering Kids’ big move into The Hub building, and she was planning for the fall 2022 opening of the program’s new Inclusive Montessori Preschool.
Schroeer’s an integral part of all the program’s endeavors, but where she really shines, according to those who know her best, is in her relationships with clients and their families. Her interactions spark hope, happiness and purpose.
“She’s fun and she connects with people, and especially people with disabilities,” Stoll says. “She finds good qualities in people, and she can create a bond very quickly... Tiffany is very, very bright. She is very funny.”
“She’s wonderful at listening,” adds Kim Nelson.
Schroeer gives her co-workers some credit for that, saying a couple of them have, “really instilled in me that sense of listening to the client, and that self-advocacy goal, starting when they’re little kids, of being able to say, ‘I have autism.’”
“When you can explain it and talk about it,” she adds, “then it’s not scary, and it’s not weird or different or wrong.”
Schroeer has lifelong, first-hand experience in the world of special education, and she discovered her calling for the career at an early age. Her sister, Lori, she says, was a big inspiration behind that: About 30 years ago, Lori was the first special education student in Perham to be “mainstreamed.” That means she was taught in a general education classroom rather than in a separate special education classroom. Mainstreaming was developed to include students with disabilities in traditional classrooms so they could have the same social and academic opportunities as other students.
Schroeer watched and followed along as her family and the school district created more spaces of inclusivity for Lori, who has Down Syndrome, and she was inspired by what she saw.
“My mom spoke so highly of the special ed teachers,” she recalls. “I just thought, how cool to impact a life so positively. And if somebody has made a difference for my sister, maybe I can make a difference for somebody else’s sister, or brother, or child.”
One of Lori’s teachers, in particular, made a strong impression on Schroeer — her elementary school special education teacher, Rick Heimer. He had a great connection with the family, and helped develop a successful learning plan for Lori.
Watching how he interacted with all of them, and seeing the positive difference he made in Lori’s life and all their lives, gave Schroeer a definitive goal for her own future: “I hoped someday I could be somebody else’s Rick Heimer.”
She began paving that path for herself by enrolling in the elementary education program at Minnesota State University in Moorhead. She got her bachelor’s degree, and then returned for her master’s degree in special education, with an emphasis in autism spectrum disorder. She became fascinated by the human brain — how neurotypical and neurodiverse brains are the same and different — and got licensed in developmental cognitive delays, emotional behavioral disorders, and learning disabilities. She went on to teach special education in public schools, including Sebeka schools, and then her path turned toward Empowering Kids.
Schroeer’s mix of academic and personal experience in special education, including her expertise in autism, made her the “absolute perfect” person for the director job, Stoll says: “She understands how services for people with disabilities, they’re so hard to find in rural communities. And because she knows Lori and loves Lori...she will do just about anything to help people have a better life.”
“To find somebody who is that dedicated is really, really hard, so we are incredibly fortunate that she came to Empowering Kids,” adds Stoll. “She has dedicated herself 500%.”
Schroeer will say she wears many different hats in her director role, and that those hats change often. But no matter what she’s tackling at the moment, her goal is always that, “when people talk about...or think about Empowering Kids, they smile.”
Schroeer aims for the program to provide, “that sense of purpose and that warmth and that connection,” she says, “because that’s what people want and that’s what people need, is that sense of belonging and safety.”
She’s willing to have uncomfortable conversations, check important emails at 2 a.m., and offer a shoulder to cry on. She’s all about creating a space of openness and vulnerability, not only for clients but for staff, as well. She says the Empowering Kids team is, “the coolest pack of misfits,” who aren’t afraid to ask tough questions, talk through problems, and dive into solutions.
Community support is a vital piece of Empowering Kids’ success, too, she adds, and the program is fortunate to have plenty of that. Positive community response, “fuels the fire to keep going.” People are asking, “What can I do? How can I help?,” Schroeer says, and that community spirit is just what Empowering Kids needs.
“I would have never, ever, ever in my wildest dreams imagined that it would be where it is today,” she says of how the program has grown. “I tell people about Empowering Kids and the programs that we’re building and our dreams for the future, and it just sounds so surreal.”
Schroeer is currently working on a master’s degree in social work to become a licensed clinical social worker, which will enable her to provide even more mental health services.
That pursuit is taking up much of her free time these days, but when she does have time to spare, Schroeer likes to spend it singing, dancing, sleeping, doing puzzles or, most of all, hanging out with family. Her four siblings, Jordan, Brian, Lori and Kayla, and their parents, Kurt and Donna, are close-knit, she says, and they all live near each other. For fun, they have a blue school bus that they ride around on.
“Something that we love to do together is to get on the bus and go sing karaoke at random places,” she says. “We also like to take the bus...and go bowling, like everybody hops in and there we go.”
She sees herself sticking around Perham for the long haul. It’s where her heart is, she says: “It’s where my family is, and where my family is, is home.”