Thomas Poelma knows that people like to feel at home.
That is the reason the lobby and hallways at Fairport Baptist Homes Caring Ministries are made to look more like a residence than a medical facility. It is also why the non-profit organization has continued to push the boundaries of its service, evolving from a nursing home to a community-based system of care.
For Poelma, 57, meeting the needs of seniors and their desire to remain at home as long as possible, then making them feel at home when they do come to live in a residential service setting, is what motivates him.
The longtime chief financial officer at Fairport Baptist Homes, Poelma was named interim president and CEO in May. In November the organization took away the interim title and appointed Poelma on a permanent basis.
After 26 years with the organization and duties overseeing a budget of more than $20 million, Poelma says he is ready to bring his combination of financial and human service expertise to lead the organization. Those skills will be important as the non-profit continues its shift from a medical model of care to a small group, household-neighborhood setting.
The organization has 400 employees and serves 1,500 people annually.
With his mix of experience at Fairport Baptist Homes and in the industry, Poelma was the right pick to lead the organization, Chairman Joseph Anderson Sr. says.
"The fact that he’s spent such a number of years as CFO means he brings a business acumen that’s really a plus, and he also understands so much about the industry," Anderson says.
Poelma knew about Fairport Baptist Homes long before he started working there. In the 1970s his grandmother went there to live, and the church Poelma attended while growing up in Albion, Orleans County, supported the non-profit.
When Poelma came to work at Fairport Baptist Homes in 1986, the organization already was going through changes.
"When I started as director of fiscal services, it was just the start of computerization, so we were installing accounting and payroll systems for the first time," Poelma recalls.
The organization has always been on the leading edge of service changes, he says. In the 1990s it was among the first to shift away from the medical model of service and change to a hallways program.
Because he has lived in Fairport for more than two decades and been involved in Kiwanis and as a youth sports coach for his two children, Poelma has become something of a historian of Fairport Baptist Homes and how it fits in the village. He can point out the fixtures within the organization’s main building that were there when it was built and go into depth about the founders of the organization.
Knowing its history helps him understand the changes it has gone through and where it is headed, Poelma says.
"We’ve tried to be ahead of the curve in what we offer and how we offer it," he says. "We could see early that the medical model of service was not what people wanted. They wanted to stay in their homes, and if they couldn’t, they wanted their setting to be home-like."
Because the needs of clients are constantly changing, Poelma says, Fairport Baptist Homes will have to keep evolving. To determine what the organization’s direction should be, the board is drawing up a new strategic plan.
"The joke we make is that after 100 years, we have to sit down and find out what we want to be when we grow up," Poelma says.
Fairport Baptist Homes must change if for no other reason than that everything around it is changing, Poelma says. In the 1980s, the average age of clients coming to live at the home was in the mid-80s, but now it is not unusual for people to come in their mid- to late 90s.
"People come to us later and stay only as they need to," Poelma says. "Gone are the days when people would come and stay here for 17 years."
That shift has led Fairport Baptist Homes into new settings, such as its so-called "naturally occurring retirement community." This is a neighborhood with a high concentration of older people in need of the services the organization provides.
Fairport Baptist Homes meets these patients where they are, providing transportation, care management and nursing services to the people who live within the neighborhood.
"We want to help people who are in the community stay in their homes longer, which is what they want too," Poelma says.
This type of services delivery will be increasingly important, says Ellen O’Connor, who leads the Senior Options for Independence program at Fairport Baptist Homes.
"The number of people seeking home- and community-based services will only continue to grow," she says.
Poelma, with his combination of institutional knowledge at Fairport Baptist Homes and strong leadership, is well-placed to address this shift, O’Connor says.
"His wisdom and leadership of creating a leadership team for long-term care shows how he’s ahead on this issue," she says. "It’s an exciting place to be because it’s so wide open to the opportunities we’ll now have to meet the needs of seniors."
This means that Fairport Baptist Homes has put more focus on the programs and services that help seniors remain independent. The organization offers seminars to teach them about online banking and use other programs to maintain their quality of life.
"We have a day care center right on site, so we’re planning to bring back an intergenerational program that allows the seniors to work with the children," Poelma says. "It really works out great for both the children and seniors."
The settings in which care is provided have changed as well, Poelma says. Seniors are leaning more toward smaller, apartment-like settings, which Fairport Baptist Homes offers in locations such as DeLand Acres.
The site is a cluster of 25 two-bedroom cottages and 17 one-bedroom cottages designed for middle-income seniors. These cottages are wheelchair-accessible, and all interior and exterior maintenance is covered by Fairport Baptist Homes.
For low-income seniors, Fairport Apartments offers studio and one-bedroom residences. These settings were opened in 1972 by Perinton Churches Housing Inc., which still works with Fairport Baptist Homes to determine the future direction of the apartments.
As Fairport Baptist Homes continues to grow, Poelma says, it must expand and strengthen its partnerships with other community groups.
"Non-profit organizations a lot of times had done things on their own, but you can do so much more today in partnerships than you can by yourself," Poelma says. "In the future, that means partnering with other non-profit groups as well as for-profit companies. Everyone brings something different."
These partnerships will help Fairport Baptist Homes control costs, he says. As state sources have cut back on funding and impending changes to Medicare and Medicaid bring less revenue, fiscal concerns are increasingly important, Poelma adds.
As a result, the organization has begun looking for new sources of revenue. It has had a foundation for years but is making more serious efforts to expand fundraising, Poelma says.
"We just hired a new director of advancement, and as reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid change, that fund-raising part will be a bigger and bigger focus," he said.
Poelma credits much of the growth of the organization to the dedication of the staff at Fairport Baptist Homes. Many members of the leadership team have been there for 10 or 20 years or more, he says.
Poelma also has a knack for getting the most out of that team, Anderson says.
"He’s a strong leader who certainly takes full advantage of his team," he says. "Tom makes the final decisions, but he always seeks the input of his leadership team and lets people on his staff share their thoughts."
There also will be changes within the organization, Poelma says.
One of the next steps will involve a shift to electronic medical records. Poelma recalls his start with the organization as it implemented computerized accounting and payroll systems, saying a system that allows nursing and other staff to share information better is a logical progression along the same line.
"This is information that should be at the fingertips of our staff," he says. "In the next 18 months we’re going to be making a big move into electronic medical records, which is great because it will also allow us to keep in better touch with other organizations."
Fairport Baptist Homes soon will begin providing outpatient therapy as well. Many of the residents are staying briefly while they recover, so it makes sense to offer the therapy they need on-site, Poelma says.
This could also provide a new source of revenue, he adds.
"We think the timing is right to start doing this, and we look forward to adding to the services we’re offering seniors," he says.
As Fairport Baptist Homes expands its offerings and shifts into new and different settings, it is also important to let people know about it, Poelma says.
"You’re not just running a nursing home anymore, and you can’t be," he says. "You need to be providing a multitude of services that will be meeting the large number of baby boomers who we’ll be seeing in the coming years."
Position: President and CEO, Fairport Baptist Homes Caring Ministries
Education: B.S. in accounting, Clarkson University, Potsdam, St. Lawrence County, 1978; master’s in public administration, SUNY College at Brockport, 1990
Family: Wife Ann, son Eric, daughter Emily
Activities: Golf, spending time with family and being involved with youth sports for his children
Quote: "You’re not just running a nursing home anymore, and you can’t be. You need to be providing a multitude of services that will be meeting the large number of baby boomers who we’ll be seeing in the coming years."
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