A Valpo Life in the Spotlight: Jessica Witherspoon

A Valpo Life in the Spotlight: Jessica Witherspoon

Jessica Witherspoon is a mom, wife, community member, and perhaps most critically, an activist. She currently serves as the liaison for two branches of the State of Indiana’s government, in Vocational Rehabilitation and as part of the Department of Workforce Development. Her life is immersed in activism, as she’s always actively fighting for the human rights of those with disabilities.

Witherspoon’s story starts in Houston, Texas, which is where she was born and raised. After
spending some time out in the community during a visit to Indiana in the mid-2000s, she
happened to meet her husband, and permanently made the move to the Region in 2007.

Before she switched states, Witherspoon had never worked professionally with people with
disabilities. However, ever since the inception of her adult life, she’s committed herself to
assisting those who are commonly disadvantaged and disinherited by society, as she even served as a correctional officer for the Juvenile Probation Department while still living in the Lone Star State. Once her move to the Midwest took place, she transferred to Purdue University, flip-flopping between areas of study and eventually ending up majoring in sociology, with a minor in criminal justice. Her graduation in 2010 marked her as the first member out of her family to graduate from both high school and college.

All over the place with her activism, the plate Witherspoon finds before her is usually always
filled. She first dipped her toes into this lifestyle around the time she got married, but became
more associated with it after the birth of one of her children.

“My husband and I decided to start a family a couple of years after getting married. We had our first child, and then decided to expand our family with baby number two, who is my son and was born with Down syndrome, along with other medical conditions. Right before I
had him, I was working in the disability field. I already had a couple of years under my belt
serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But after my own child was diagnosed with disabilities, I decided to become more of an advocate, and made it my mission to be able to make it easier for other parents to navigate through their journey,” she said.

As time went by, Witherspoon single-handedly organized a network of individuals from her
community. These individuals whom she collaborated with were typically the parents of children with disabilities, and they would gather in groups to discuss matters concerning waivers that would help them to access certain government-funded services. At the time, her job was with the Bureau of Developmental Disabilities Services of Indiana, so she was knowledgeable of all the particulars related to the relevant kinds of services needed for the families she was helping.

What’s best, though, is that all of the assistance she’s ever provided is free and comes at no cost to any of the families she supports.

Witherspoon is virtually a superhero of sorts. Providing education to families through her
working with organizations like IN*SOURCE and volunteer work with the Down Syndrome Association NWI and Chasing Dreams, she’s never relented in putting her best foot forward for the sake of those she’s surrounded by. Certainly, serving in the way she has been for years now comes with its takeaways, with its rewards, and a lot of it lies in her helping families to aptly comprehend specific jargon.

“For me, the reward is when parents get it. When I can meet with a parent before they need to advocate for their own child, I aim to give them tools, ones that they need to put into their
toolbox. When they go to these meetings, and I see them pull out those tools at the appropriate time, use the right terminology and phrases, I just sit back and observe because now they're knowledgeable of the tools and how to operate them. Seeing their spark go off is magical," she said.

In this line of work Witherspoon’s proudly, gladly plunged herself into, there are an abundant
number of challenges which arise out of all the headaches. They’re of all sorts of natures, and find a way to infringe upon people’s basic human rights. Being the selfless person she is,
Witherspoon hasn’t ever and will never tolerate that reality, even though her patience is something that’s always being tested.

“I somehow have to laugh instead of cry because oftentimes everything in the disability world
involves a wait of some sort. The disability community still faces a lack of services and a lack of funding. The main challenge is the wait times we have to go through for essential human rights. I’m not asking for a red carpet or a limousine. It's sad to say that this is the way things are, because you wouldn't think that, in 2023, this would be a conversation we're still having, but these are the big barriers the disability community experiences. Above all else, what people need to remember is that those with disabilities are people too, and I wish this is how they would be looked at all the time,” she said.

“One of the biggest hurdles individuals with disabilities face is inclusion. People with disabilities are worthy of inclusion just as much as any non-disabled person is. Inclusion is not just having an individual with a disability in the room; inclusion is ensuring that the persons with disabilities are in the same room, are engaged, and have access to all of the same opportunities that a non-disabled person would,” she continued. “It disturbs me to my core that the disability community is still having to battle many of the same battles that were occurring fifty years ago. These are essential human rights. We've come so far as a society, yet we have quite the ways to go.”

Throughout it all, Witherspoon constantly remains motivated, and that motivation finds its
inspiration in her desire to give a voice to the voiceless. While she’s on this side of the ground, she feels that helping in the way she’s been for all these years is indeed her purpose, that it adds a kind of fuel to her life, and has since become her calling as well.

Because much of her spare time is spent volunteering, Witherspoon’s hobby is her activism.

Outside of the aforementioned groups she’s a part of, she looks forward to beginning to volunteer with Hannah’s Hope, a local organization that serves children with disabilities, and most recently she became a board member of Porter County Project Kids, which is a local non-profit that aims to support the physical and emotional health of the youth. Living in Valparaiso has made all of this opportunity possible.

“My favorite thing about living and working in Valparaiso is all the potential it offers. My goal is to educate the community on embracing individuals with disabilities. When I've been vocal at school meetings or with City Hall personnel, trying to make change, they've listened, they've heard, and I think they understand my stance on wanting to genuinely create change,” she said.

Although her compassion for others runs quite deep, Witherspoon has started to make sure that she takes care of herself, too.

“I’m trying to learn more about the importance of self-care, not being ashamed to fill my own
cup up. In past years, I wasn't always making it a point, and instead focused solely on filling up the cups of others. Now, I'm learning to make sure mine is filled up along the way as well,” she said.