Deanne Gagne is no stranger to overcoming the odds.
Gagne was born with cerebral palsy, and doctors did not give her a high chance of survival. That was prior to starting work as a coordinator for Advocates in Action, the state’s self-advocate organization, in 1997. It was also before she went to Rhode Island College and obtained her bachelor’s degree in social work in 2006.
“Considering I wasn’t supposed to live and I wasn’t supposed to walk, talk and use my hands, any of that, I just do my daily life, I’m used to it,” Gagne said during a phone interview on Monday morning. “But it’s kind of remarkable when you think about it.”
Her prognosis came many years before Gagne began Bridge Building Services, a business focused on fostering connections between and offering support to communities such as those with developmental disabilities, in 2010.
Now Gagne, 47, is sharing her story as part of National Developmental Disabilities Month, and her inspiration begins with helping others.
“I’ve always loved to help people,” Gagne said. “Most of the time I’m talking to direct support, they really want to know the best practices and how to best support people and … about what self-advocacy is and speaking up and helping people figure out what is best and what is going to work for them.”
Gagne echoed what her business brochure notes – that as a recipient of services, she understand “first-hand how difficult it is to navigate a complex Human Service system.” She also wrote in her brochure that she knows those receiving similar services are “longing for meaningful relationships and want to contribute to their communities.”
That’s where Bridge Building Services comes in. Gagne offers group and individual facilitation, transition from school to adult services, and mediation, among other amenities.
“I wanted to kind of give people and help people find the resources that they needed to help navigate the system,” Gagne said. “I’ve been dealing with families and individuals and agencies that provide support to people with disabilities.”
Gagne has kept up her education to continue building the business side of BBS. She’s taken a business class through a Governor’s Workforce Board grant to help advertise her brand. She said she would like to ramp up marketing in the future, and joked that some could take the name “Bridge Building Services” too literally.
She said whether it’s helping people get resources they need or just assisting them in carving out a path to the future, BBS is there to help.
“I think I’m trying to get some marketing going and trying to get more, because I guess for me it’s now just about people with disabilities,” Gagne said. “My goal’s to help everybody.”
Gagne’s brochure features one glowing testimonial in particular, shared by Day One Rhode Island training specialist Karyn Hadfield.
Hadfield said it was a pleasure to work with Gagne, and called her a “skilled facilitator, presenter and collaborator.”
“I had the opportunity to work with Ms. Gagne and her Bridge Building Services on a major grant initiative through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women,” Hadfield wrote. “Ms. Gagne shared her considerable knowledge as a social worker, self-advocate and receive of services to help the cross-discipline committee navigate the often difficult system of violence response services for individuals with development and cognitive disabilities.”
Given the obstacles Gagne has faced, she said it is vital not to underestimate this with disabilities. Her core belief that people with disabilities want to work and contribute to society has driven BBS for nearly a decade, and will continue to do so down the road.
“I think they think we’re not able to do the things we can do,” Gagne said. “There are some people with disabilities who are architects and musicians and they are doing some really remarkable things … we have the stereotype that people with disabilities are just sitting at home collecting their checks, and I think that we’re in 2019 and it’s getting better, but I think we have a long way to go.”