WOMAN named Goodwill Industries International Graduate of the Year

Monday, May 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MILWAUKEE (AP) _ The next time you're frustrated by some obstacle on the job, some minor annoyance at home, think for a minute about Anne Rindfleisch.

Born without arms or legs, the 37-year-old Brown Deer woman runs the computer room at a local retailer. She loves Milwaukee Admirals hockey and shopping and hanging out with her boyfriend.

And though every move of every day poses a challenge _ from answering the phone to powering up her desktop _ she's not much for bitterness or self-pity.

``Your life is what you put into it,'' said Rindfleisch, fresh off a whirlwind tour of Washington and an audience with President Bush. ``If you make it productive and happy, you'll be happy,'' she said. ``If you're always a downer, you won't.''

Rindfleisch's philosophy on life _ as much as her accomplishments in the workplace _ are what have focused an international spotlight onto this usually unassuming woman in recent weeks, say family and friends.

Named Goodwill Industries International's Graduate of the Year, Rindfleisch used the congratulatory trip to the nation's capital last week to lobby Bush and lawmakers for improved programs for those with disabilities.

A reluctant celebrity who's prone to blushing when the topic turns to her, Rindfleisch doesn't see herself as being special. Her successes, she says, arise from a never-say-no attitude born of a life of struggle, although her childhood in some ways was as typical as any.

``My parents never sheltered or coddled me,'' Rindfleisch said. ``They always encouraged me to do for myself as much as I could.''

But for the longing of her family, life might not have turned out that way.

``It was five months before we brought her home,'' said Jean Rindfleisch, recalling with guilt even now the painful decision to have their daughter institutionalized.

At the urging of family members and a nurse who predicted Anne would not live beyond the age of 8, the couple placed her in Southern Colony, the Union Grove facility for the developmentally disabled.

``But we missed her right away,'' said Anne's father, Alan. ``We went to visit her all the time.''

The family could no longer leave her when, during one visit, their then 5-year-old son, Jon, looked at his sister, then back at them and said, ``We've got to bring her home.''

And so began what was, by all accounts, a pretty normal childhood.

Within months, Anne was fitted with a ``bucket,'' as she calls it, to help her sit upright, and later a wheelchair.

As she grew older, she was drawn into the childhood games of her two brothers and the other kids on her Whitefish Bay street.

She played Barbies with her girlfriends _ they held her doll, and she supplied the voice. At 8, her friends would pull her out of her chair and bounce with her on a huge backyard tire. As a young teen, she'd tag along on her brother's dates at the drive-in.

And she loved to swim, said Rindfleisch, whose father fitted her with a foam ring that allowed her to float.

``My brothers would pick me up and literally toss me into the pool. People would freak out, thinking they were torturing me,'' she said. ``But I'd come up and scream, 'Do it again.' ''

Rindfleisch's sense of humor and sometimes mischievous inclinations also appeared early. Because she was so small at the age of 3, her mother would carry her around in a bunting, those cuddly, sack-like baby garments that revealed only the face. So, it wasn't unusual to have passers-by stop to coo over the little one inside.

``You should have seen their faces when I started to talk to my mother in full sentences,'' Rindfleisch laughed.

Even today, friends and family say, her sense of humor is one of her most fun and disarming features. In the hoopla preceding her trip to Washington, she was chatting with co-workers at the Burlington Coat Factory store in Brown Deer about all the hurdles one must clear before entering the White House.

``The next thing they'll want to do is fingerprint me, and good luck, Charlie, on that one,'' she's said.

Always a bit of a practical joker, Rindfleisch took pleasure as a child in rolling her torso across the living room floor and untying her father's shoestrings.

``I told her, 'If you're going to untie those shoes, you're going to have to learn to tie them,' '' her father said. ``And she did, with her mouth.

``I guess she proved to me there's not a whole heck of a lot she couldn't do.''

That was a truism Rindfleisch would illustrate again and again over the years.

She performed so well academically at Gaenslen School in Milwaukee for disabled children that she decided when it came time for high school to enroll instead at Whitefish Bay. That was long before the Americans with Disabilities Act or a widespread acceptance of the notion that disabled children can be served just as well in mainstream schools.

``I was so worried for her - you know how cruel kids can be,'' said Jean Rindfleisch, who was persuaded finally by her daughter's physical therapist at Gaenslen. ``She said, 'Anne's got such a good brain, she has to use it.' And she was right.

At Whitefish Bay and later at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Anne Rindfleisch stunned faculty with her fierce independence. She refused help with note-taking and insisted on writing out her exams as she'd always done - with a pencil in her mouth.

``She was quite extraordinary. She asked for nothing in the way of special accommodations,'' recalled Joan M. Jones, director of social work at the university and one of Rindfleisch's professors at the time.

``That desire to be independent, it seemed to be part of her sense of herself. It was very impressive.''

Part of that, to Rindfleisch, meant finding a job after she graduated in 1989 with a degree in social work. But without a master's, not to mention employers' reticence about her disability, it was difficult to find work in the field. She volunteered for the next six years at Columbia Hospital, greeting visitors and staffing the information desk.

But she was restless, both to move out of her parents' home and to find work.

``I knew, in my heart, I could handle a real job,'' Rindfleisch said.

The months before she moved out were strained for mother and daughter as one pushed for her freedom and the other fought to hang on.

``Mom and I were not getting along at that time, and Dad had to be the mediator,'' Rindfleisch said in a voice suggesting it's now water under the bridge.

``I said, 'Mom, you're not going to be around forever. Don't you want me to see if I can do this on my own?' ''

But they were extremely close, and Jean was terrified of what might lie ahead f or her daughter.

``It was her caseworker who really made me think,'' Jean Rindfleisch said. ``She said, 'Anne needs her own life,' not our life.''

Since the day she moved out of her parents' home in September 1995 and into a subsidized apartment, Rindfleisch has set about living it.

She has an active social life, hitting the Monday night bingo game with her friend, Jennifer Scheuber, and still meeting college pal Ellen Prebish for an occasional Admirals game.

Though it's true Rindfleisch is almost always upbeat, she wouldn't be human if she didn't have down moments.

``Sure, she gets frustrated,'' said Prebish. ``But Anne's like me. We talk about the down times when they're happening, but when it's over, it's over.''

``She's got a spirit that just doesn't quit,'' said Scheuber, who first met Rindfleisch when she worked for her as a home health aide. On the job, she's just as impressive.

In a small office at the Burlington Coat store, Rindfleisch is busy preparing the day's reports. Using a mouth stick _ a dowel with a rubber tube on one side and pointed eraser on the other _ she busily inputs the day's shipments. At 42 words a minute, she's sometimes too fast for the aging computer.

Using her shoulder to steer her wheelchair, Rindfleisch shifts to another part of her desk. There, she uses the mouth stick to pull a contract from a stack of files, positions the pages in the stapler with her teeth, then pushes with her chin.

When the phone rings, she lifts it between her chin and ear in a single motion so swift, she laughingly likens it to a karate move.

A newly hired assistant performs what few functions she can't, such as pulling reports off the printer. But beyond that, she's not one to seek help.

``She's extremely independent,'' said Andrea La Croix, district manager for the discount retailer. ``She's phenomenal. She does an outstanding job for us.''

It was in Goodwill Industries' Business Careers program that Rindfleisch learned the workplace skills she uses today. And it was there she left an impression so profound it touched one woman to the core and drew international attention to Rindfleisch's life's accomplishments.

``It's not unusual in my job to work with people dealing with pain and discomfort,'' said Cheryl Axford, director of vocational services for Goodwill, who nominated Rindfleisch for the award.

``But this woman is anything but. To think she'll never know what it's like to scratch her own nose, to shift her weight in her chair and never grumble - never - it puts your whole life in perspective.''

Though it is part of her job to nominate a Goodwill graduate each year, it's clear in the breaking of her voice that the 2001 nomination was different for Axford.

``This happens to you only once in a life, when you meet someone who really reaches in and touches your soul,'' Axford said. ``Anne is that person in my life.''