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Bringing an organization back from the brink

Sankar Sewnauth:
Bringing an organization back from the brink

Walking through the halls of Continuing Developmental Services Inc., Executive Director Sankar Sewnauth greets each of the residents by name.
“Sankar!” the residents exclaim.
It is easy to see Sewnauth’s dedication to people with developmental disabilities. He knows each resident’s personal history, talent and potential.
Sewnauth’s boundless energy appears to radiate when he is around residents at the CDS facility.
It was his own daughter’s disabilities that led him to a career working with the developmentally disabled. Abigayle Sewnauth, now 15 years old, was diagnosed with speech and attention deficit disorders at an early age.
When Guyana native Sewnauth moved to Rochester in 1988 to be closer to family members in Toronto and New York City, he had two pressing needs: finding employment for himself and finding the best possible care for his daughter.
Sewnauth discovered that Rochester is a city rich with resources. His daughter enrolled for treatment at the Rochester Hearing and Speech Center at the Al Sigl Center. While taking her to the center for treatment, Sewnauth noticed a posting for an entry-level job in direct care at the Arc of Monroe County.
Though the job paid only $5.31 an hour, Sewnauth saw a ripe opportunity for career advancement. He inquired with a supervisor about the career path in working with people with disabilities and was told that those who work hard can advance quickly in the field.
“(Advancement) was my motivation,” he says.
Within six month of taking an entry-level job at a home for moderately and highly developmentally disabled people, Sewnauth became the manager of the house. In another six months, Sewnauth was running two houses for the Arc of Monroe County.
Sewnauth continued to work hard at the Arc. In 1989, a year and a half after joining the organization, Sewnauth was offered a position at CDS.
The residence director at CDS was seeking an assistant director. Sewnauth welcomed the challenge of working in a new environment and growing organization. At the time he joined CDS, the organization was opening day-treatment centers as well as expanding its services. Sewnauth saw both personal and professional growth opportunities.
After joining CDS nine years ago, Sewnauth moved up the ranks quickly. When he took over as the executive director in 1998, he knew the organization inside and out.
CDS serves nearly 1,000 individuals with developmental disabilities at 17 facilities in the Greater Rochester area. The non-profit organization provides programs such as day treatment, early childhood prevention, work training, family support and residential services.
As with many non-profit agencies, CDS struggles to obtain government funding as well as private donations to meet its needs. In taking the helm at CDS, Sewnauth dedicated himself to revitalizing the agency financially. The first task he undertook was publicizing the organization’s cause.
“We’re doing everything we can to heighten awareness in the community,” he says. “If people don’t know what you’re doing, how can you expect people to give?”
To breathe new life into the 21-year-old agency, Sewnauth made the decision to run the non-profit organization like a business.
When he took over leadership of the organization, CDS was operating in the red and faced the prospect of closure or merger with another agency.
“The company was highly leveraged,” he recalls.
Sewnauth had to make some tough decisions to reinvigorate the organization.
He gathered his front-line management team to discuss ways to reduce overhead costs while maximizing services to CDS clients. Each manager was asked to re-evaluate his or her program and identify ways to improve operations.
“We literally changed the management,” he explains.
Throughout the restructuring, Sewnauth kept his managers in the loop on crucial decisions, often soliciting advice and counsel.
“I involved people in working through the process,” he says. “We worked on what is the best way to keep us successful.”
Kevin Paul, management adviser at Change Management Associates Inc., thinks Sewnauth handled the painful restructuring gracefully. Paul was hired by the CDS board of directors to assist with streamlining the organization’s operations.
“Our company deals with change on a regular basis,” he says. “I would characterize what Sankar was going through as a crisis.”
Though Sewnauth was new to his executive director position, he did not avoid implementing tough decisions, Paul recalls.
Paul recommended making wholesale changes, including the termination of many staffers who were less than productive or not fitting with the organization’s long-term goals. Sewnauth insisted that the layoffs be handled delicately, allowing those affected enough time to find another position. Most downsized staffers kept their positions at CDS until they found a new job.
“He certainly had a vision of where he wanted CDS to go,” Paul says of Sewnauth. “To his credit, he chose collaboration with his senior managers. He knew he couldn’t do it himself.”
Robert Columbo, chief financial officer at CDS, joined the organization in the midst of the restructuring process. He was impressed by how Sewnauth handled a very difficult situation.
“I like his leadership style,” Columbo says. “I think he worked hard in building a team approach. He’s a consensus builder.”
Sewnauth’s energy drives others to perform for the CDS cause, he adds.
“His commitment to disabled folks is very deep,” Columbo notes.
Through communicating with his staff, Sewnauth emphasized the cuts within the organization were short-term sacrifices needed to move toward a long-term goal of financial stability for CDS.
Almost immediately after directing the restructuring, Sewnauth tackled the task of enhancing the agency’s public image.
He began to meet with families of clients to find out how CDS could better serve their needs. In the process of gathering information, Sewnauth also met with community leaders.
During this period in spring 1998, Sewnauth met each day with a minimum of three people. Often, he would work well into the night.
Slowly but surely, the hard work paid off. The first sign of success was ending the 1998 fiscal year in the black.
For 1998, CDS reported total revenues of $18.5 million, compared with expenditures of $18.3 million. The agency employs more than 400 staffers at its various locations.
Lewis Wolf, CDS founder and chairman of its board of directors, has seen Sewnauth through the various stages of his career at the organization. He credits Sewnauth with much of the agency’s success.
“He’s evolved into an administrator who’s done a tremendous job,” Wolf observes.
In light of the competition in the human-services field, Sewnauth knew it was imperative to differentiate CDS from other providers. In Monroe County alone, CDS’ competitors include the Arc of Monroe County, Lifetime Assistance Inc. and Catholic Family Center.
One of the programs Sewnauth is promoting to distinguish CDS from other human-service providers is Unistel. Established in 1979, the program provides a variety of support services to assist developmentally challenged people seeking employment and help employers find good workers at affordable wages.
People who are enrolled in the Unistel program work in teams, performing tasks such as assembly-line production, packaging, and janitorial and shipping services.
Unistel provides a real work environment for the severely disabled who have not been able to obtain employment. Participants often suffer from disabilities such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism or mental retardation. CDS provides a supervised setting for the Unistel workers.
Employers that use Unistel workers can receive tax credits of up to 35 percent for the first $6,000 in wages. Local companies that contract with Unistel include Eastman Kodak Co., the Lodge at Woodcliff and Xerox Corp.
The fact that Unistel workers are developmentally challenged does not mean their work is below par, Sewnauth says. He cites studies that show 90 percent of the workers are rated average or above average for job performance, and 86 percent are rated above average for attendance.
Because of Unistel’s excellent job performance record, CDS can negotiate a fair wage for its workers, Sewnauth adds.
Championing the cause of people with developmental disabilities has been a hallmark of Sewnauth’s career at CDS, says Amy Zorn, the agency’s director of residential services.
“He’s a true visionary,” she says. “He really cares about the consumers we serve.”
Sewnauth is well-loved by residents at the facility, Zorn adds, describing residents’ excitement whenever Sewnauth visits with them. Unlike some administrators, Sewnauth is a hands-on manager who wants to be involved with the personal lives of his clients, she says.
“He’s really done a lot in a short amount of time,” Zorn says.
Though CDS may be on sound financial footing, the job of revamping the agency is far from over, Sewnauth says. He plans to pursue aggressive fund-raising initiatives to grow the organization and increase public awareness of CDS and its services for disabled people.
This will be possible, Sewnauth says, because CDS is staffed with highly talented people dedicated to assisting the developmentally disabled.
“You can never do this alone,” he says. “You’re kidding yourself if you think you can.”



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