a group of Milwaukee-area families came together to form
Life Navigators in 1949, they were — perhaps unknowingly
— on the cutting edge of the disabilities advocacy
“Those founding families developed the framework for community-based
services for kids and adults with disabilities,” says Vicki Wachniak,
executive director of Life Navigators. “They were really ahead of their
time. Back in 1949, most individuals [with disabilities] went into some
kind of institutional care.”
Today, Life Navigators continues to work toward its mission of improving
the quality of life for physically and mentally challenged adults and
The organization’s services — which include job trainings, volunteer
outings and social gatherings — promote inclusion in the community for
people with disabilities. The nonprofit also provides corporate
guardianship and care management for individuals who don’t have a
caretaker to make critical decisions regarding their health and safety.
One of the organization’s fastest-growing services is its trust program,
which allows families to set aside money for a loved one’s long-term
care. A trust can offer a sense of security both for the beneficiary and
for that person’s family. “It really provides peace of mind that once
the main caregiver may no longer be around, there’s a financial plan in
place for their loved one’s future,” Wachniak says.
Mike and Ginny McBride of Brookfield opened a trust through Life
Navigators after their granddaughter, Allison, was born with
5P-Syndrome. Approximately 50 to 60 children in the United States are
born with 5P- each year, according to the Five P Minus Society. The rare
condition leaves children with lifelong physical and developmental
One of the features of 5P- is the inability to swallow, Mike explains,
and so Allison, who is now 9 years old, relied on a feeding tube until
she was 18 months old. Today, Allison has surpassed expectations
physically — she can run, jump and swim like other kids her age — but
she will always lag behind her peers intellectually.
Beyond facilitating Allison’s trust, Mike says Life Navigators will be
an important part of Allison’s ongoing care, helping her parents and
eventually her older sister, who will, one day, be Allison’s legal
guardian. “We’re getting a lot of comfort knowing she’s going to be in
great hands with Life Navigators involved,” Mike says.
Allison has also befriended other children with disabilities through
game nights and outings to the Mequon Nature Preserve and local sporting
events. These social interactions are just as important for kids as they
are for adults, Wachniak notes.
“We often hear from families whose loved ones participate in these
programs that they’ve started to see their confidence and self-esteem
grow,” she explains.
Life Navigators also offers a lifeline to caregivers. This year, the
organization began hosting Coffee Connections, a monthly meeting for
older caregivers to connect with each other and discuss long-term care,
trusts and guardianship options for their loved ones.
Navigators has been a mainstay in the community for nearly 70 years,
Wachniak says the nonprofit still works hard to spread awareness of its
services and its mission. “We always think families are connected to
services, but it’s ongoing that we get a call from a hospital or
neighbor,” she says. “Part of our work is always being out in the
community at different events to spread the word of our work and to help
families get connected.”