Commitment to Care
UCP’s Valerie Pieraccini is celebrating 25 years of changing lives
By Zac Dunn
Valerie Pieraccini spent her early 20s traveling the country, peddling her skills as an occupational therapist wherever they were needed. By her own admission, she was restless; every few months she would pack and move to a new city, a new state and start again.
When the Deer Valley resident accepted a position at United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona in 1994, she expected the cycle to continue. But 25 years later, Pieraccini is the longest-standing staff member there.
Pieraccini knows better than anyone how much this local nonprofit has changed. But more importantly, she says, are the ways it’s stayed the same.
“As UCP has gone on a journey over the last 25 years, I’ve gone on one alongside it,” she says.
Pieraccini still remembers the trepidation she felt on her first day at UCP. By then she was used to the first-day jitters, but the unassuming building set in a less-than-luxurious strip mall made her pause.
“The building deflected me at first because I’d taken the job sight-unseen. But the people and the mission are what caused me to stay.”
The passion her new colleagues had for helping their child clients was unlike any place she’d worked. Pieraccini joined the small therapy team as the only occupational therapist on staff, and her expertise soon became invaluable:
“Families were aware they needed that help. They would basically chase me down on campus, yelling ‘I need these services for my child,’” Pieraccini says with a laugh. “There was definitely a desire and a need for those services.”
As she helped more and more children overcome the obstacles of a delay or disability, she realized she’d found a place that she didn’t want to leave.
And so, a job she expected to last three months turned into 25 years. UCP moved from the strip mall to the expansive Laura Dozer Center, the cattle fields of Deer Valley were replaced by corporate campuses, and Pieraccini rose to become director of UCP’s Children’s Programs, which grew to include two therapy clinics, a home-based therapy program and an Early Learning Center.
With its bigger and better facility, UCP expanded its variety of services, introduced a new assistive technology and augmentative communication program, a feeding clinic, the Life Skills Group for preteens, early intervention therapy for children younger than 5 and helped more children than ever.
But most important to Pieraccini is that UCP hasn’t compromised on the individual attention and quality of the children’s services that had earned the community’s trust in the first place.
“That was my commitment when I came on as director, to never sacrifice that quality of care,” Pieraccini says. “Some things about UCP have changed, but the important things cannot.”
Even after 25 years, the same things that brought Pieraccini to UCP are what keep her there. It’s the commitment to seeing the children thrive. It’s the therapists’ passion for what they do. And above all, it’s the look on the children’s faces when they realize they’ve accomplished something they’ve been working toward for weeks, months or sometimes years.
It’s stories like Jack Flores’.
Flores was born 12 weeks premature and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Like many others who share his diagnosis, doctors told his parents it was unlikely he would ever walk, and if he did, he would need a walker. He began working with Pieraccini from a young age to develop his fine motor skills.
“I’ve worked with a lot of therapists throughout my life, and many have become like family to me,” says Flores at a recent speaking engagement.
Pieraccini was the only one to be mentioned by name. “Some of (Pieraccini’s) kids weren’t listening to her, and I asked how she was able to put up with it. She told me, ‘You have to love people just how they are.’ I was reminded that also includes myself. I have to love me and be OK with my differences.”
Now Flores is a two-year veteran of his high school track team and an avid hiker and backpacker.
“I owe my depth of knowledge as a clinician to all the children I’ve served over the years,” Pieraccini says. “Their challenges challenged me to grow as a professional.”
While the faces around her have changed, Pieraccini says the culture that attracted her in 1994 has persisted. Now, with the expansion of their therapy clinics and openings in their top-rated early learning center, Pieraccini hopes a new generation of families will arrive at UCP to experience the wonders that have kept her coming back day after day for 25 years.
“There is something divine about helping a child that fills your soul,” Pieraccini says. “I miss working with children every day but as a director of the program, the knowledge that the children that come to UCP can receive uncompromised care fills my soul as well.”
To learn more about UCP’s staff, programs, and openings, visit ucpofcentralaz.org.