The Prairie Center Long-timers
She used to be a go-go dancer. He was a Yellow Cab driver. And another a former probation officer. Their resumes run the gamut of experiences. But they all ended up making Prairie Center their long-time work home.
Collectively, there’s 122 years of Prairie Center experience spread across five of them. They’re the longest serving staff of Prairie Center and the bedrock of our organization. Their stories and journeys are each unique, but they all share one common thread: a steadfast belief in the importance of the work Prairie Center does for those battling addiction.
Here are the stories of the Prairie Center Long-Timers.
Sharon Wiegel | Licensed Practical Nurse | 29 years of service
Her first day as Prairie Center Day Shift Nurse is seared in her memory. She recalls the exact date well because that was when, she says, she was “thrown directly into the fire.”
Short-staffed in the medical unit at our Champaign facility, Sharon Wiegel’s first day saw a never-ending stream of clients seeking admission, detox, or treatment. Stressed and largely working alone, she managed through, barely taking a breath or break for herself.
After the first-day deluge, Sharon surprised co-workers by returning to work the next day.
This past March, she celebrated 29 years with Prairie Center. The medical unit where she still works today remains a hive of activity like it was her first day. Still, Sharon greets each client warmly and by name. The phone rings off the hook, clients come and go, staff are always needing something. How does she handle it all? Making daily lists each morning and prioritizing.
She found herself interviewing for her position after a family member successfully went through treatment with Prairie Center. Impressed with our work, she was ready to make a career move.
How has she stayed three decades in this high-intensity field? “Great co-workers,” she says. “Prairie Center is also very family-oriented. I never had to choose between my job and my kids.” Sharon was always able to be there for her three children, serving as Scout leader for each and attending school field trips with them. “I never had to make a choice,” she said. “Prairie Center let me do and be both.” Today her kids, all born while she was on staff, are grown and some now have kids of their own.
“At Prairie Center, I feel like I am really helping clients change their lives.”
Paula Barickman | CPI Instructor & Addictions Counselor | 28 years of service
Paula Barickman is Prairie Center’s self-described “road queen,” spending most of her time out with clients in Ford County and Rantoul providing individual counseling and running group sessions. “Seeing lives change, seeing when someone starts getting excited about working for recovery, that’s what motivates me,” says the 28-year counseling veteran. “I believe what I do can make a difference.”
Paula’s interest in working in addictions counseling is personal: addiction issues are in the family.
During school, an internship at a treatment center in Ohio sealed the deal for her profession-wise. Today she’s a Prairie Center Addictions Counselor, and also serves as our certified Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) Instructor, teaching other staff self-defense and de-escalation techniques.
Her deep faith helps sustain her in this challenging work. “My beliefs make me a better counselor and a better person,” she says. “If I thought it was all up to me, it would be very difficult. Believing that God is big enough to help clients build something with their life is very comforting to me.”
When she’s not at Prairie Center, Paula works part-time at the Hope Center as Ministry Director for the Vineyard Food Pantry.
Valarie Shelton | Youth Addictions Counselor | 22 years of service
She’s been a go-go dancer, an Avon lady, and a stay at home mom. She’s got mad hula hooping skills, got a tattoo at 60, and kicked a three-pack-a-day smoking habit after smoking her way through the labor of her first child.
Valarie Shelton is a coal miner’s daughter raised in an alcoholic home. She was also married to an alcoholic for 25 years.
Bored at 35, Valarie went back to school on a whim when a friend asked her to take a class with her at the local community college.
It turned out to be a transformative life-changing experience. “The teachers at Danville Area Community College literally changed my life.” She left with an Associate’s Degree in Drug and Alcohol Counseling and now 22 years later, she’s has been changing young lives as a Youth Addictions Counselor in our Danville facility.
“God made a mess into a message for me,” she says of her journey.
“I love the people. I love my job. I thought I’d retire at 65, but I’m just not tired yet.” She smiles reflectively as she shares the success story of a young client she met 10 years ago when he was 14. Today in recovery, he is in college studying to be a minister.
She calls the work she does her “divine appointment.” “I believe I was called to do this work for a reason. The reason I’m successful is God is my boss. Prairie Center just thinks they’re my boss,” she says with a smile.
When she’s not changing young lives at Prairie Center, Valarie volunteers for Faith Prayers Ministries, a free 24-hour prayer line she’s been taking calls on for eight years, many from people with drug issues.
Susan Perkins | Danville Clinical Director | 22 years of service
She started out as a US Probation Officer Assistant straight out of college and was quickly promoted to Probation Officer. A promising government career ahead of her, she left to go into counseling because she wanted to play a larger and more direct role in helping people.
Susan Perkins began at Prairie Center as an Addictions Counselor just months after our Danville office opened in 1995. Back then, she recalls, the entire office shared a single computer shared in the office on a rolling cart.
Today she’s Danville Clinical Director. “I just love this work. I want more people to embrace recovery. It means more families becoming whole, better parents raising happy children, and a healthier society.”
Born in Danville, Susan has deep roots in the community and is very committed to and passionate about giving back and helping the people of Vermilion County. In her 22 years with Prairie Center, Susan’s dedication has grown our Danville facility from a small satellite office into a full outpatient treatment center serving the great Vermilion County region.
Tony Ferguson | Software Administrator | 20 years of service
Aside from a short stint on the East Coast, Tony Ferguson has lived in Champaign-Urbana his entire life. In that time he’s had a storied list of jobs: farm laborer, a “curbie” delivering Steak ‘n Shake orders, Yellow Cab driver, hotel bookkeeper. But flipping through the want ads in the local paper one day, he stumbled across a job in our Finance Department that caught his eye.
It was his first time hearing of Prairie Center, and after interviewing, he never dreamed he’d be at the same desk two decades later. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else. The mission of this place is one reason I’ve never thought of leaving. Prairie Center is doing good work in the community.”
Tony helps support this great work every day in his role. “There is always something urgent and challenging that has to be done,” he says of his job. He and the Finance Team are constantly working to streamline processes and make things simpler and more efficient for our staff and clients.
For 44,530 days, these five Prairie Center veterans have brought a unique passion to their jobs with Prairie Center. Their tenures are rare in this field. The dedication is clear.
And each and every day they help clients, they are changing lives.