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This article by Barbara Fox and Teena Chandy was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 2, 1999.
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New Options for People with Disabilities
In the early 1980s, the 17-year-old son of Mercer
Chamber’s executive director wrapped his car around a telephone pole
and went through a windshield, nearly dying and suffering substantial
brain damage. Though he emerged with some permanent impairment, he
made a successful investment in a Lawrenceville pizza shop (Varsity
Pizza on Route 206 near Rider). But, says his father, Ed Meara, he
couldn’t take the pressures of handling lunch and dinner crowds. "His
mind would not turn over that quickly. It was frustrating as hell
for him." Instead, he volunteered at the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation
Center to care for the elderly.
Then Meara met Robert Stack at a Community Options fundraiser for
the nonprofit organization that uses state and federal funds to develop
housing and employment opportunities for people with disabilities (http://www.comop.org).
Meara’s son, now age 35, became a Community Options client and is
now happily employed, providing companionship for the elderly. "He
in effect is taking care of people who are more impaired than he,"
says Meara. "The point is that Community Options has something
for him to do that isn’t degrading or exploitative."
Robert Stack, the 43-year-old founder and president of Community Options,
believes that all people, regardless of their level of disability,
can and should live and work in the community and gain self-sufficiency.
Stack founded the nonprofit out of his home in 1988, and it is now
an international organization with a budget of $30 million and noteworthy
grants from the federal government and Microsoft. It pioneered the
idea of shared offices — the Daily Plan It on Alexander Road,
for instance — as job opportunities. It supports 700 people with
disabilities in 11 states and owns nearly $10 million in real estate,
including an impressive new headquarters on Farber Road (http://www.comop.org).
Stack hopes that Community Options will someday have name recognition
like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, yet these charities took
decades to build, whereas he aims to expand at a lickety-split pace.
"We are the fastest growing non-profit organization," claims
Stack. "We expect our budget to grow by $100 million by the year
Is this the claim of a selfless do-gooder or an empire builder with
a big ego? To answer that question, first consider how the idea of
community-based services for the disabled has progressed. Whereas
taking the mentally ill out of institutions is a fairly recent idea,
helping the those with disabilities to live and work in the community has been New
Jersey’s goal for decades, yet programs are woefully inadequate.
William Waldman, former New Jersey commissioner of human services,
now director of the American Public Human Services Association (http://www.aphsa.org), explains
that the federal government had always matched funds for institutionalizing
those with developmental disabilities: "But 20 years ago a deal
was struck wherein New Jersey said we will limit the growth of institutions
if the federal government will provide funds for community living."
Title 19 of the Medicaid program spurred a more aggressive change
from a custodial philosophy to active skill building. Then came a
shift from active treatment to a "person-centered" planning
philosophy requiring states to recognize individual choice. Demand
for services grew as life expectancy increased and parents learned
effective lobbying techniques. "Now the states are more and more
relying on organizations such as ARC and United Cerebral Palsy to
provide the care," says Waldman.
Stack says he learned from his father — a milkman for Schneider’s
Dairy in Pittsburgh — that if you believe in your product, you
can sell anything. Stack began his campaign for the those with disabilities early
in life, when he went to a seminary school to train for the priesthood.
Required to volunteer with mentally retarded children, he tutored
an abused girl who was unable to control her drooling. "I would
try to get her to chew and keep her mouth closed," says Stack.
"I worked with her every Wednesday and Saturday for three years."
He objected to the way in which the developmentally disabled were
sequestered from the rest of society. "I was a really a common
sense kind of kid," he says. "I thought `Why don’t they just
go to regular school? And we could save a lot of money.’" And
this helped him develop some long-range life goals. Deciding not to
continue pursuing the priesthood, Stack left seminary school and attended
a public high school in Pittsburgh.
Then came the University of Dayton (Class of 1976), where he studied
philosophy, which was followed by a stint as a graduate student teacher
of philosophy at Ohio’s Kent State University. A formative moment
came when Stack realized that his reading assignments, although they
included selections about the lack of medical ethics in the treatment
of those with developmental disabilities, were not close enough to the action.
"I wasn’t changing the lives of anybody," he says.
In 1979 he quit teaching, took a pay cut, and got a job working for
the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental
Disabilities as an assistant recreational therapist at Long Island’s
Suffolk Developmental Center. After three years as executive director
of United Cerebral Palsy (now known as Enable Inc.), he joined the
New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities. But state programs
would also prove to Stack to be an ineffective way of handling developmentally
disabled citizens. "People with disabilities needed jobs,"
he says. "I started to get really involved with it, and saw that
most people with disabilities were being institutionalized."
He started Community Options out of his home in 1988, incorporating
it in 1989 to be a national nonprofit organization. During the early
years he earned a virtual MBA from Southern California University.
In deference to European tradition (COI has global expansion plans)
he uses this degree on company stationery. The first contract —
to do advocacy for the disabled — came from the State of Pennsylvania
Stack says he thought long and hard before rejecting the for-profit
status, because the need for services is great, and for-profit companies
usually grow more quickly. For instance, a company traded on the New
York Stock Exchange, ResCare, is effecting what is called a "roll-up,"
buying up for-profit and non-profit service providers, such as EduCare
and VOCA, to grab formidable market share.
With enough capital behind him, Stack could have started down that
empire-building path. "If I were a profit company I could sell
the organization and take the equity and put it in my pocket,"
says Stack. "But I don’t believe that people should make a profit
on the backs of people with disabilities.
That doesn’t mean the head of a nonprofit must live like Mother Theresa.
"We need to have more CEOs think that they can work with folk
with disabilities," says David Holmes, president and executive
director of Eden Family of Services, which helps those with autism (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Until and when people can see working with people with disabilities
as an economically appropriate thing to do, we are not going to see
growth of services."
Stack says it was rebellion against the vows of celibacy rather than
the vows of poverty that led him back to the secular life. And for
the first several years of COI he was paid on the level of a social
worker, $30,000 to $40,000, so that more money could be plowed back
into the business. But now he is compensated more appropriately for
an executive director and says his board "bumped him up" when
he was hiring a vice president with national prominence. He pegs his
salary at "well under $180,000," approximately double what
a state director of the division of disabilities would earn.
As a for-profit agency, Stack realized, he could land any number of
government contracts but very few charitable donations. "And as
a for-profit, people wouldn’t get involved with me for altruistic
reasons; I wouldn’t have the same caliber of folks working here,"
he says. In addition to many eager young workers, he has enlisted
the services of such prestigious leaders as Michael W. Morris, former
national head of United Cerebral Palsy, now senior vice president.
Madeleine Will, former wife of the columnist, was the assistant secretary
to the U.S. Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services.
For COI she is developing a national training and conference center
in Washington, D.C.
Another advantage of nonprofit status is the chance to brush shoulders
with the great — major funders and celebrity supporters. MicroSoft
has given Community Options a huge grant, touted on the Microsoft
webpage (http://www.microsoft.com/skills2000/.) John Popper
and the Blues Traveler rock band promoted a COI drawing. Greg and
Tom Hildebrandt of Star Wars and Spiderman fame donated artwork for
the annual report (http://www.spiderwebart.com). Eunice Kennedy
Shriver, founder and honorary chairman of Special Olympics International,
is perhaps the most prestigious national board member.
Yet virtually all of the existing major nonprofits were built from
grass roots, bit by bit, chapter by chapter, resulting in gross inefficiencies.
"When I looked at the relationship of the national organization
to the state to the local chapters, I saw what deterred growth,"
The Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC), for instance, has 1,500
chapters nationwide and a state office in New Brunswick. "They
have 1,500 CEOS, 1,500 corporate entities, 1,500 boards of directors,
1,500 different insurance policies, audits, business managers, accounts,
personnel policies. If you took the 21 ARCs in New Jersey and consolidated
them, without even looking at it, you would save in excess of $15
to $20 million."
"I wanted to set up a structure that would enable us to operate
quickly yet be a nonprofit," says Stack. He decided to try to
combine the no-nonsense efficiency of the for-profit chains with the
apple pie appeal of a charity.
Being a non-profit does not mean there is no competition.
In addition to ARC and Enable Inc., similar services are provided
by Eden Family of Services, St. John’s Community Services, Easter
Seals, Goodwill, and the Salvation Army — plus fast-growing ResCare.
Stack responds like an entrepreneur: "Our product is better."
The product — services to more than 700 clients and 2,000 families
— is delivered by a staff of 1,300 in 22 offices and dozens of
homes in Colorado, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New
York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas,
and Wisconsin. It recently opened an office in Egypt and plans to
open offices in England and Northern Ireland.
Creating jobs through microenterprises, landing government grants,
implementing quality-saving efficiencies, and owning real estate —
all are part of Stack’s infrastructure scheme. "The microenterprise
concept goes beyond the traditional non-profit charitable approach
where services are handed out and instead enables people with disabilities
to generate an income of their own through employment," he says.
On Alexander Road the Daily Plan It is a shared office, conference,
and copy center where individuals with severe disabilities are employed.
Offices are made available through service arrangements to individuals
or groups who purchase additional corporate support services, such
as word processing, copying, and shipping. A spiffy black and white
van ferries copies and personnel. Community Options also manages Daily
Plan Its in Trenton, and Morristown. Future businesses are planned
in Maryland, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, and Texas.
Nearly 75 percent of COI’s funding comes from federal and state programs,
with 25 percent provided by government and foundation grants and private
donations, including the recent gift of $25,000 from a private family
foundation based in New York City, the JM Foundation. Stack points
to three landmark grants:
a grant to train minority, non-profit agencies on how to write small
develop training for people with severe developmental disabilities
on how to manage information technology through a computer. Three
colleges — Austin Community College in Texas, Denver Community
College, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology — will train
25 persons at each site for three years under this program, PASS*IT*ON
(Plan for Achieving Self Support with Information Technology Opportunities
Nationwide). To augment this grant, Microsoft has given $50,000 in
cash and $282,000 in cash, software, technical resources, and tools.
Research has provided $1.8 million to develop recommendations on employment
policy for persons with disabilities to the federal government. This
research will be done at George Washington University, University
of Iowa, and Rutgers.
grants, but we won them all," says Stack.
As for quality control, "I have a national infrastructure
with national trainers who also function in a quality assurance capacity,"
says Stack. "Just like McDonalds, which makes french fries the
same in Moscow as in Poughkeepsie, all our organizations have the
same standards." Salaries are little above average, with direct
care-givers starting at $16,000 a year plus a possible bonus. Benefits
include a four percent contribution to retirement plans after one
year and a good cafeteria plan.
As for real estate, he tries to buy the buildings he is using and
pay off the mortgages in 15 years: "Once that happens we can take
that money to develop more programs." Stack points out that when
he recently moved the headquarters from Bordentown, the $2 million
Farber Road property did not disappear from West Windsor’s tax rolls.
It had never been on the tax rolls, because it had was previously
owned by J. Seward Johnson’s Harbor Branch Foundation.
To acquire this building — designed by sculptor and Johnson &
Johnson heir J. Seward Johnson — is a real coup for a small but
growing nonprofit, because its patios, columns, skylights and other
architectural details convey prestige — but on the understated
scale that is often typical of the very wealthy. Stack has added a
different, more commonly recognizable element of prestige: A massive
conference table, elegant enough to be in the White House, and it
is guarded by flags from every state and country that COI serves.
The move to Princeton’s zip code, Stack admits, was partly because
he wanted to attract bright undergraduates as interns, but also because
he needed this prestige. "The cachet of being in Princeton on
a national and international basis is very important. When we were
based in Bordentown, no one had heard of it. I just got back from
Cairo, and all of them had heard of Princeton."
A part of Stack’s satisfaction in his work dimmed when his father
died last April. "He was always very proud of me. One of the things
I used to do was call my dad and say, `I’m opening up in Tennessee’
or `I’m opening up in Egypt.’ I used to get an odd nice piece of satisfaction
from doing that," says Stack, who is the divorced father of a
Whether he is considered an empire builder or a selfless do-gooder,
Stack has incurred some resentment from among his peers. That’s not
surprising. Social service professionals spend years learning how
to accomplish goals in a bureaucracy or how to make an old organization
effective in new ways. Yet this upstart criticized the status quo
and wanted to siphon monies away from existing organizations. "The
worst thing about being a pioneer is that sometimes you get arrows
in your back," admits Stack.
Is he indeed an empire builder? "I’ve been called worse,"
Stack jokes. But, he continues, "I welcome the creation of nonprofits
throughout the United States that can help with the mission of getting
persons with disabilities out of institutions and into community based
"Stack came up with some forward looking ideas and got people
excited; he is quite an entrepreneur," says Waldman, the former
commissioner. "He is very well regarded and runs a pretty solid
program that has grown with federal grants. He has taken risks where
somebody else could have fallen flat. He has always been a client
advocate at heart, and his work has been reinforced by national recognition."
Says Stack: "I go to bed every night and get up every morning
thinking about the fact that 45,000 people nationally are in institutions
and a quarter of a million families are trying to access services
for their loved ones. I’m building a position in this country where
people with disabilities are getting what they need and deserve."
Ed Meara’s son Thomas is getting what he needs and — at the other
end of the scale — Bernard Krakosky is another success story.
Born with severe physical and visual impairments, Krakosky began his
institutional life at age three. At 18, his pay at the Johnstone Training
and Research Center averaged 25 cents per day. In 1992, when Johnstone
closed, Krakosky came to Community Options, moved to a small house
with four men, and started a volunteer receptionist job. In 1994,
he found a part-time job and moved to a condominium with one friend.
Today, as a receptionist in Trenton for the state, Krakosky is also
a property-tax payer and the proud owner of a mortgage and his own
home. "I like when people come in and say good morning to me,"
says Krakosky. "That makes me feel good."
08540. Robert P. Stack, president, CEO. 609-951-9900; fax, 609-951-9112.
Home page: http://www.comop.org.
experience stories and essays about awareness, rights, and inspiration. http://www.tell-us-your-story.com
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