Community Option

William Waldman

Robert Stack

David Holmes

Blues Traveler & Eunice Shriver

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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."

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Community Option

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

2002."

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.

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William Waldman

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.

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Robert Stack

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

in 1991.

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.

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David Holmes

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: edensvcs@aol.com.

"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.

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Blues Traveler & Eunice Shriver

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,"

says Stack.

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:

1.) The Administration on Developmental Disabilities has given

a grant to train minority, non-profit agencies on how to write small

foundation loans.

2.) The U.S. Department of Labor has provided $1.5 million to

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.

3.) The National Institute of Developmental Rehabilitation and

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.

"It was a very hard and complicated process to win these

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

13-year-old son.

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

programs."

"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."

Community Options Inc., 16 Farber Road, Princeton

08540. Robert P. Stack, president, CEO. 609-951-9900; fax, 609-951-9112.

Home page: http://www.comop.org.

Also see:

Tell Us Your Story, a discussion forum for helping those with disabilities share and showcase personal

experience stories and essays about awareness, rights, and inspiration. http://www.tell-us-your-story.com


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