The day after Cindy Zellner-Ehlers gave notice of her impending retirement, a multitude of memories from her 35-year career as a social worker in Door County surfaced vividly in her mind.
“It was this surreal kind of experience, a flooding of memories and things that happened in my career,” she said. “Thirty-five years, my goodness, that’s a lot of families, a lot of stories, a lot of heartbreak, a lot of challenges. Some of the flooding moments were hard. But then there were also a lot of really exciting things.”
It was abundantly evident that Zellner-Ehlers has made an amazing impact when, on February 13, 2018, she appeared at her final Human Services Board meeting as Door County’s Developmental Disabilities Program Manager. The board members on this oversight committee talked about her not just as a county employee or colleague, but as a true friend as well. Citizen member Bob Rau said he had known Cindy since 1986.
“She is a joy to have as a friend, co-worker, colleague, anything you want to name,” he said. “And it isn’t just me. Everyone she meets. And she has a staff just as loyal as you can find. That’s really wonderful to see. That’s how you get to the point where trust is everywhere.”
“The Human Services Board is a composition of county board members, lay people and interested community members,” Zellner-Ehlers said. “You get a lot of passion and commitment. Whenever I’ve presented to them, I always felt like I walked away that I had made a difference. They were really listening and really, genuinely want to hear the stories. The best way to understand human services is be the voice, and I had to be that voice. Hundreds and hundreds of stories I’ve maintained over the years and I felt like I could tell any of them to the board and they would learn from that. It’s pretty powerful stuff.”
Human Services Department head Joe Krebsbach also praised her commitment to growing and improving human services in Door County. He recalled the first departmental meeting he attended after being hired, and that he was so impressed by Cindy at that meeting that he went home that night and told his wife, “That’s the kind of leader I want to be.”
Krebsbach added, “She’s the most amazing social worker I’ve ever worked with.”
Zellner-Ehlers said there is not a single moment that stands out as the defining element that brought her into the world of social work, just that she “always had a strong affinity for children with special needs.”
“I knew I wanted to go into social work or education, supporting kids,” she said.
She grew up in Green Bay and earned a degree in social work from UW-Green Bay.
“When you graduate you have high hopes of going anywhere, everywhere,” she said. “I applied all over. Where do I end up? Forty-five minutes north of Green Bay.”
She had applied to run a group home for developmentally disabled adults in Sturgeon Bay.
“I humbled myself by taking the position for minimum wage,” she said, “but who would have ever thought it would be the segue of doing social work at the county for 35 years?”
Zellner-Ehlers had been at the group home for 18 months when a part-time position opened with the county.
“So I still maintained my position at the group home and worked part-time for the county. That quickly turned into the opportunity of a lifetime to do social work,” she said.
Doing social work on her terms included establishing relationships and marshaling resources.
“My mantra has always been it’s all about relationships. I really believe that,” she said. “Opportunity presented itself for me through relationships with people. As a matter of fact, the gentleman who hired me at the time — the name of the agency at the time was Door County Unified Board — was Ted Bauch, mental health coordinator for the unified board. He continued to be one of my life mentors. He really believed in me, even though I didn’t know squat. He trusted that I would learn.”
Zellner-Ehlers soon proved that Bauch’s trust was well founded.
“Once I learned the lay of the land and the statutes and rules attached to supporting individuals, I quickly learned the artistry of grant writing, having conversations with the right people to gain the resources,” she said. “Door County has always been an amazingly generous, committed and passionate community, even our county board. There was always a contribution above and beyond what the state required. With that kind of commitment, that’s where I wanted to be. They are serious about it.”
With that kind of commitment, she said she knew she was in it for the long haul.
“I’m not saying there weren’t hardships along the way,” she added. “Not just fiscal, but in this field you have to take care of yourself otherwise you can’t take care of other people. I surrounded myself with really great people, where work is not a chore it is a real pleasure and a gift.”
Zellner-Ehlers also credits much of her success to a staff that stuck by her side for a long time.
“The field of social work is not just work,” she said. “We did some really amazing, fun things. We did a sib camp for 9 or 10 years every summer. My staff and I would facilitate it. Siblings [of the developmentally disabled], that’s a whole other issue because they are expected to be overachievers. They put themselves in the place of being overachievers, so to be able to do a camp where we celebrate their strengths and their siblings. They don’t see siblings through the lens other people do, so to have them tell their stories was an exciting adventure. It’s those really positive memories that stick out for me.”
She served for 11 years on the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, which, she said, resulted in bringing “a lot of resources in order to do some creative, cutting-edge things in little Door County. That allowed me to see another layer of how the system can serve people, and I felt that made me all the more effective in my role here in Door County.”
Although at times the bureaucracy could be daunting for all involved in the system, she quickly realized that she had to be the beacon of hope for families.
“You have to be passionate because you have to give families a sense of hope,” she said. “You have to give the families all the strength you have because theirs may be depleted. You also have to give families a sense of creativity and flair. I think that’s one of my greatest attributes. If we can’t do it this way, let’s try it this way. You have to find the balance and not get frustrated by it.”
With that sense of deep commitment to the people she served, it was only natural that when she announced her retirement, some people inevitably raised the question of burnout.
“People would say, ‘Are you burned out?’ No. I could have done it another 10 or 15 years,” she said. “I just knew this time was right for me. I never felt burned out. I never felt it was a chore. There were difficult times, as there are in anybody’s career, but I just knew it was right for me.”
But don’t count her out completely, because there is still work to be done.
“All you have to do is listen to the news and see that we still haven’t gotten it right,” she said.
“The last initiative I was involved in was mental health services in the schools, doing some cutting-edge grant applications, looking at what we can do there,” she said. “That is my next campaign. I’ll do it from a volunteer end of things. You watch the news and just want to make sure our kiddos in the schools are supported and getting the services they need. Our goal is to bring the services to the kids. That’s a big campaign we have to have right here as a community. I have faith Door County will do it well. We are blessed with a community that really cares.”
And personally, how will she spend her retirement? That’s something she’s still working on.
“This whole chapter about retirement, it’s just interesting,” Zellner-Ehlers said. “I feel like I’m on vacation. I haven’t quite mastered it yet. I’m a huge baker. My staff always laughed that was kind of Cindy’s therapy. When lots of bakery showed up at the office, they knew Cindy was stressed.”
You can sample her baking at Pasta Vino, where her tiramisu is offered because her son, Ben, is part of the Wuollett restaurant empire in northern Door County (Chop, Lure and Pasta Vino).
“There’s some baking attached to some of that, so I’m busy with that,” she said. “My daughter and her new husband just bought a 1934 home in Wisconsin Rapids that needs a lot of TLC. Todd and I will be over there helping, I’m sure.” (Todd is her husband, Door County Circuit Court Judge D. Todd Ehlers.)
She plans to volunteer her time in retirement, and serves on theSevastopol School Board. She also has a year-old grandson.
“That whole chapter in life is exciting,” she said. “I have a lot of faith that whatever is meant to be will be.”