Longtime Horizons executive director retires after almost 4 decades fighting for disability services
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Susan Mizen came skiing into town back in 1981, she didn’t have plans to become one of Steamboat Springs’ most effective, unsung heroes. But after 38 years helping to fight and care for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities through Horizons Specialized Services, a regional nonprofit, she’s finally retiring.
“I’m going to miss her ability to navigate complex issues and to create a sense of calm and comfort,” said colleague Deirdre Pepin, Horizons’ resource development coordinator. “Susan is so compassionate and nurturing that it’s easy to forget how intelligent and strategic she is at the same time.”
Mizen is credited with turning Horizons into one of Colorado’s most highly regarded Community Centered Boards, which is a nonprofit organization created by the Colorado Legislature to determine eligibility of people with disabilities and provide services in a specific geographic district. Horizons covers five counties, including Routt and Moffat.
Mizen first volunteered for Horizons in 1981 in the cross country ski program. They soon hired her to run the nonprofit’s Day Program.
While the Indiana native had a master’s degree in education and a counseling degree, being a therapist wouldn’t be her thing.
“I knew I didn’t want to be the type of counselor who has people come in and talk for 50 minutes out of an hour. I wanted to work with people holistically,” Mizen said. “I wanted to help people in many areas of this life, and this is what this job ended up being.”
By 1995, Mizen was tapped as Horizons executive director, and she went to work finding a way to purchase four group homes and renting others to make sure the community’s residents with disabilities had a path to assisted independence.
Nancy Kaminski is quite familiar with Mizen. More than 30 years ago, Mizen was her daughter’s case manager when she and her husband realized their baby wasn’t reaching typical milestones. Their daughter would eventually be eligible for Horizons’ services when she turned 21, moving into one of those group homes lobbied for by Mizen.
Horizons is involved in early intervention from age 1 to 3 then adult services again at age 21.
“She doesn’t want anybody to fall through the cracks,” said Kaminski of Mizen. “She wants them to have every opportunity they can have.”
What: Retirement celebration for Horizons Executive Director Susan Mizen
When: 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24, 2020
Where: Olympian Hall, 845 Howelsen Pkwy.
Cost: Free and open to the community
In fact, Kaminski watched as Horizons staff helped her daughter advance from a group home with her friends, then to a transitional apartment, and now, living and working alone.
“I used to be so worried about what was going to happen when we die. She’s going to be fine. She’s got her own life. She’s so independent,” Kaminski said.
She said Horizons is sustainable because of Mizen and the staff’s hard work.
“Much of the rest of the state doesn’t have that opportunity,” Kaminski said.
Part of the reason why Horizons is able to sustain a healthy program with a smaller waitlist than much of the state comes down to one of the things that Mizen is most proud of — a rare 2005 property tax increase that supports Horizons. Community Centered Boards like Horizons rely on sometimes unstable Medicaid and other government funding, so a consistent local tax revenue source has been invaluable.
Pepin said Mizen’s ability to engage with the community helped get the tax increase passed.
“She helped people understand that disability is a natural part of life. All people, whether they have a disability or 10,000 amazing abilities, have value,” Pepin said.
Mizen’s persistence also helped net a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2011 to build a transitional living complex in downtown Steamboat where adults learn to live on their own while still getting support from an on-site counselor. The Soda Creek Apartments can also be used for older individuals who are not able to live on their own any more and need to step down into transitional housing.
“I am so privileged to have been on the board of Horizons,” said board member LuEtta Loeber, who retired from corporate America before settling in Steamboat in 2006. “Susan’s a real leader, compassionate, focused, organized … you put those four things together, and that is what made Horizons so successful.”
In fact, Loeber credits Mizen’s mentorship with helping her establish the Yampa Valley Autism Program.
“I had very little nonprofit experience when I organized the autism program. She (Susan Mizen) was an extraordinary help,” Loeber said. “Susan’s very forward thinking, and that’s what a real leader needs.”
Even as Mizen winds down her tenure at Horizons, she’s still on the front lines, working up until the last minute. She was recently in Denver lobbying for more consistent funding for people with intellectual and development disabilities.
“There’s about 6,000 adults waiting for services,” Mizen said.
And thanks to Mizen, only 50 of those on the waitlist reside in Northwest Colorado.
“I can’t say enough about how much I love her, and she leads the greatest team of people dedicated to the people enrolled in our programs,” Kaminski added. “Every person at Horizons is integrated into the community. They volunteer and work in the community… Horizons has helped us raise some good human beings.”
Meanwhile, as Mizen slowly packs up her desk, she admits she might be a little lost after being so ensconced in Horizons culture. However, husband, Jeff Troeger, is already retired from teaching college, and there’s still traveling to do. She also has a grown son in Steamboat and another in Seattle.
Mizen’s last official day is Dec. 31. Her successor is longtime Horizons Program Director Tatum Heath.
Horizons is planning a public retirement celebration for Mizen in conjunction with the organization’s 45th anniversary party from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, at Howelsen Hill’s Olympian Hall.
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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