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Leading by example, he gives staff creative rein

The work at the Arc of Monroe County’s Fairport Day Habilitation Program can at times be daunting, Steve Willmarth admits.

The program serves individuals with a range of disabilities, helping to give them greater social and communication skills. It is work that Willmarth says can be equally rewarding and challenging, and he aims to strike a balance so staff members can succeed in the midst of it all. 

Willmarth is in charge of the program serving 65 individuals Monday through Friday, helping them to build skills that eventually allow them to move on to employment and greater levels of independence.

“They come to the program, and it’s essentially a parallel of going to work during the day,” Willmarth said. “They all have goals that they’re working on during the day, primarily skill-building that allows them to develop socially and cognitively. They are learning things like computer skills, math skills and everyday living skills like cooking.”

Willmarth says the end result for some participants is to be able to move them on to jobs, but not all will be able to reach that level. Each individual has a specific range of goals, he said.

“We would like to see everyone becoming a productive member of society and giving back and ultimately everyone holding a job, but we also move people into either volunteer opportunities in the community or other settings,” he said.

The work can be quite challenging for the staff, Willmarth says. Participants come with a wide range of developmental and intellectual disabilities that call for a number of approaches.

“We see every diagnosis you can think of related to developmental disabilities, and we also have a program within a program for people diagnosed with autism and challenging emotional and behavioral needs in that group,” he said. “A lot of times the programs in this area aren’t favorable to work with these folks. It’s more staff-intensive and time-intensive, but it’s more rewarding from the standpoint of the progress we get to see over the course of four or so years.”

Willmarth participates with not only program participants but also staff members, said Mara Hynes Huberlie, the organization’s chief operating officer.

“Steve recognizes that the work done by the team is far from easy, and he makes certain to look out for (team members’) well-being as well,” she said. “He never hesitates to roll up his sleeves and work alongside them, modeling the behavior and dedication he expects from each one of them.”

Willmarth has advocated for his employees in the past. Ashley Grebner, a direct support professional within the Fairport program, said Willmarth served as a mentor and helped her through the process of presenting at the New York State Association of Day Service Providers conference.

“Steve communicates on a daily basis with everyone,” Grebner said. “He asks for staff’s opinions and thoughts, never leaving staff out of the loop with his unique energy, optimism, passion and tireless creativity.”

Giving staff members a voice has been a huge part of Willmarth’s success and, by extension, the success of the entire program, added Kathy Anderson, habilitation coordinator. She notes that he creates a safe environment in which to grow personally and professionally.

“Steve’s approach is direct, yet fair,” she said. “He truly leads through example and empowers others to be responsible and explore their creativity.”

Willmarth said the work is a success thanks to dedicated staff members.

“I think the award in and of itself is representative of the program and the employees who work here,” he said.

3/18/2016 (c) 2016 Health Care Achievement Awards Special Section. Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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