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Profile: Finding ‘the right thing to do’

Guyana native thrives at helm of Rochester’s CDS Life Transitions

Sankar Sewnauth

Sankar Sewnauth

When Sankar Sewnauth talks about his job and the organization he has led since 1998, his pride is unmistakable. But his philosophy is even more evident. Sewnauth’s story is peppered with the phrase, “It was the right thing to do.”

Apropos, given that Sewnauth sits at the helm of CDS Life Transitions Inc., a multifaceted nonprofit that primarily serves the needs of intellectually and developmentally disabled individuals. Under Sewnauth’s leadership, the CDS Life umbrella has grown to encompass six entities, including CDS Monarch Inc., iCircle, Unistel Industries, CDS Housing LLC, Warrior Salute Veteran Services and CDS Wolf Foundation.

It has been a long, and at times, bumpy road.

“I took over the agency during really a hard time. And it was stressful, but I also knew that if I surrounded myself with the right people we could get past (it),” says CDS’ 60-year-old president and CEO. “But you also need a vision for where you want to go.”

Sewnauth’s vision was to find new money through growth, while learning to be as lean as possible and also starting to build a nest egg. He also needed to stem the nearly 50 percent turnover rate the organization was experiencing.

It was a tall order.

“The big thing was attracting new board members that really knew business,” he says. “Because the history of nonprofits has been that there have been a lot of parents that started these organizations, but to really run this you need the experts from business.”

Sewnauth’s plan worked. He found a number of business leaders to join CDS’ board and bring what they knew about for-profit organizations into the nonprofit world.

“They surrounded me and said, OK Sankar, let’s put a strategy together and let’s build this thing together,” Sewnauth recalls. “And that’s how we did it. We set up a simple plan.”

Since that time the organization’s budget has grown from $17 million to $130 million this year. CDS employs roughly 700 individuals and a number of volunteers.

“You don’t get from there to there without some innovative leadership,” says Mark Peterson, former CDS board chairman and former president and CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc. “And a lot of credit to the board, not to me, but to all of the board members who served because we really evaluated the great ideas that Sankar brought to us and the data and pushed hard.”

Four decades of service

CDS Life was founded as Continuing Developmental Services in 1977. Lewis and Phyllis Wolf were joined by a group of parents who saw a need in the community for a transitional environment for developmentally disabled young adults.

“They really wanted continuity from high school into adulthood,” Sewnauth says. “And they wanted people to have a home to live in. They wanted a place where people could go during the day, whether they needed socialization or training in activities of daily living, help them to be better people, or whether they wanted employment.”

The group of parents laid out a plan to serve individuals without regard for their socioeconomic status in the community. They did it because it was the right thing to do, Sewnauth says.

CDS’ first group home opened in Henrietta in 1978. Forty years later the organization has 26 residences serving about 210 people, and they are staffed 24 hours per day.

“And these individuals live in their communities, they go to work, they come to day programs here,” Sewnauth says. “That was the vision from back then.”

Sewnauth and other CDS leadership found that, like for-profit organizations, the entity could diversify its offerings in order to raise money and fund certain aspects of the nonprofit.

Continuing Developmental Services eventually became known as CDS Monarch, one of the six offshoots of CDS Life. CDS Monarch serves intellectually and developmentally disabled people through housing and day programs, as well as employment training, family support services and Medicaid service coordination.

A second arm of the organization is for-profit Unistel Industries, which has two light manufacturing facilities providing job training, individual placement and supported work opportunities for more than 200 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

One of the Unistel facilities is a spice business for the U.S. military. When Sewnauth first took the helm at CDS Life, the spice business had about four employees and revenue of roughly $100,000.

“That business is about $7 million worth of spices we sell to the U.S. military every year,” he says.

A third facet of the umbrella organization is CDS Housing, which offers high quality, affordable housing to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, seniors, families and veterans. The apartments offer residents independent living within an inclusive community setting, and there are opportunities for on-site socialization, entertainment and events.

CDS Wolf Foundation, named for the organization’s founders, is the fundraising arm of CDS Life. The foundation was started a decade ago and raises roughly $1 million a year to support CDS Life programs.

Seven years ago, CDS Life created the Warrior Salute Veteran Services program, which serves veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, among other things.

“We were in Iraq, and our men and women were coming back home and waiting in line for services (and) the V.A. was overwhelmed,” Sewnauth says. “We live a life here unlike any other place on the face of the Earth. And a large part of that is because of our military, because of these men and women who put their lives on the line.”

Because CDS already had the capability of helping disabled individuals, Sewnauth approached the board with the idea to help veterans in a similar way. The board approved the plan.

In 2012—with financial help from Nucor Corp. and a number of local contractors and home improvement stores—CDS Life purchased a home and converted it to a 14-bed residence for veterans.

“When the veteran steps in here he should feel like we value him. We provide all the housing, food, clinical services and transitional services back home,” Sewnauth says. “And now, after seven years, we’ve served over 200” veterans.

Sewnauth often is asked why an agency that serves the developmentally disabled would start a venture like Warrior Salute.

“And I say … if I go back and look at it, at the time there was only one answer,” Sewnauth says. “It was the right thing to do.”

The final spoke in the CDS Life wheel is its newest venture, iCircle, a nonprofit managed long-term care entity serving individuals in 22 counties. As a mainstream MLTC, iCircle serves some 2,000 individuals, most of whom do not have intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“MLTCs are designed to support you so that you can live as independently as you can and avoid hospitalization and emergency room visits,” Sewnauth explains. “So, can we bring in a nurse to your house? Can we bring in an occupational therapist? Can we make modifications to your house and keep you there? Can we deliver food to you?”

ICircle is a collaboration of a number of area entities serving the community, including CP Rochester, Lifespan, Charles Settlement House and a dozen others.

Since 2015, iCircle has grown from a handful of members to roughly 2,000.

The partnership’s success is a result of its collaborative nature, says Mary Walsh Boatfield, CEO of CP Rochester, Happiness House and Rochester Rehabilitation Center.

“Sankar is very innovative and progressive and forward thinking, and so are we at Happiness House and CP Rochester,” Boatfield says.

Making his way

A native of Guyana, South America, Sewnauth joined his brother in the U.S. in 1977 and quickly found a job.

“My first job when I came to the United States was in a factory in New York City making belts,” Sewnauth recalls. “But you know, I always had this feeling like I needed to do something more for myself.”

Sewnauth soon found himself at college in Boston. But within a year he had returned to New York.

“I was in culture shock. I missed family,” he says. “That job (in New York) taught me that I could achieve my full potential in the United States of America, that whatever I wanted to be I could. That there was nothing here to stop me—that you could just build what it is that you need to build.”

Sewnauth moved to Kansas with his uncle and then returned to Guyana to bring his high school sweetheart back to the States. He returned to school and in 1981 earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Mid-America Nazarene College.

Eventually Sewnauth and his wife, Yvonne, found themselves in Buffalo.

“I went to job services and said maybe these people can help me figure out what the job situation is,” Sewnauth says. “And he started to print off all the jobs that were available, and the only thing that kept showing up was Rochester.”

The couple drove to Rochester.

“I looked at the skyline and I looked at Rochester and I saw how clean the city was and said, you know, we could put our roots down here,” Sewnauth recalls.

The couple, who had dropped their two young children off with relatives in Toronto, set about trying to find a place to live. But he kept getting turned down because he didn’t have a job.

Finally, Sewnauth called a townhouse on Lake Avenue.

“He goes through his list of questions and gets to the job one, and I said no, and he said ‘I can’t rent to you.’ And I’m about to hang up and he said ‘just tell me how you’re going to pay the whole year,’ and I said nobody asked me that question all day,” Sewnauth says. “And I said we have our passbook from the bank, which showed we had savings that exceeded the rent for the whole year. I went there and showed him my passbook and he said ‘you’ve got it.’ So in two weeks we moved the whole family there.”

But the next part of Sewnauth’s story is the part that gives him goosebumps, he says. His daughter had a speech delay, so while she was being evaluated at the Al Sigl Center, he was looking at the bulletin board and saw an ad for a direct-care job at Arc of Monroe.

“I didn’t have a job for two months and I was fit to be tied,” he recalls.

He took the job at Arc of Monroe and loved it, Sewnauth says.

“The first day I was at work I said, you know what? I could really help these guys. They have mental challenges, but they’re individuals with hopes and dreams, and all they need is for people to help them,” he says, recalling that during the year he was with the organization he moved from an entry-level position to managing two homes.

When CDS Life posted for an associate residential director, Sewnauth applied and got the job. From 1989 until 1998 he worked in a number of areas of increasing responsibility, including a stint as administrator of a new facility.

It was that experience and working his way through the ranks that helped ease him into the role of a lifetime: CEO of CDS Life.

“It gave me credibility,” Sewnauth says. “I feel like the modern-day CEO in the nonprofit better know everything. You need to touch the lives.”

Leadership

A hands-on leader, Sewnauth is described by colleagues as entrepreneurial and visionary.

“He’s infectious to work for because he brings that level of thinking and that level of commitment and dedication every single day,” says Melissa Brown, CDS Life’s executive vice president of human resources. “He is very passionate about what we do, and he is very passionate about the employees.”

Adds CDS Life board chairman Richard Ferrari: “Sankar is always looking for a better way to run the business or a complementary avenue to branch into. He rolls up his sleeves. He’s out there doing. He’s not sitting behind a desk and writing emails.”

The culture at CDS Life reflects its leader’s management style and personal philosophies. Brown describes the atmosphere at CDS Life: “It’s invigorating because there’s a culture of innovation and strategic thinking and planning and being courageous enough to look at different avenues and really be innovative to help us grow and expand,” he explains.

“My early years at CDS were a little bit challenging. CDS had financial challenges,” says Ferrari, who has been a board member some 17 years. “Sankar and his team orchestrated an amazing financial turnaround.”

CDS Life sets itself apart from other agencies in its offerings, Ferrari says.

“We’ve branched out beyond the basics of the government program to get some other, related revenue streams that provide extra services and create some financial self-sufficiency,” he explains.

Sewnauth’s entrepreneurial spirit lends itself to the organization’s success, Peterson says.

“When I started on the board, we had the basic services that we provided for people with developmental disabilities,” Peterson recalls. “But clearly Sankar had a vision for more, for their lives to be improved.”

Adds Brown: “I think we’re very strong in strategic planning, and that’s at the forefront of what we do. We’re never complacent and we’re always looking for ways to grow and innovate and improve our services and what we do for the community.”

Like most nonprofits, CDS Life faces certain difficulties. When relying on government funding and donations for your livelihood, money can be scarce.

“Probably the biggest challenge is operating in a highly regulated, government-funded environment,” Ferrari says.

Adds Boatfield: “There’s always funding challenges. Systems and funding sources are always changing, but I do believe that CDS and CP Rochester and Happiness House have looked to fundraising and other grant opportunities to enhance that funding, and we have been very successful at doing that.”

CDS Life relies heavily on Medicaid reimbursement.

“Financial wherewithal continues to be a constant issue for all of us. The state has said there’s just too many nonprofits in the (developmentally disabled) field in the state of New York, so what does that really mean?” Sewnauth ruminates. “Are you going to take out organizations? What’s going to happen to them?”

Despite the inherent demands of running a nonprofit, Sewnauth says his job doesn’t keep him up at night.

“Because I have good people,” he says. “And they run the day-to-day. They help me get things done.”

What keeps him coming back for more is that his job excites him, Sewnauth says.

“It fills my head with good things,” he explains. “I love the fact that I can come to work and contribute and help an organization like ours distinguish itself, not just get things done but also do it in a way where people notice it and say wow, CDS is a great organization in our community.”

At home

Sewnauth and his wife make their home in Penfield. They have two grown children: Abigail and Andrew. The couple are active in their church and Sewnauth enjoys traveling for work.

Golf is a favorite pastime, but he also is an avid reader. His biggest accomplishments revolve around his family.

His source of joy: “My children, to see them become good citizens. And then to see my grandchildren grow. I have a beautiful wife who really takes care of us.”

And, while humble, Sewnauth also is proud of what the people at CDS Life have accomplished.

“To see what we’ve built, and to be able to take an organization that was about to fail and guide it through a period of time and lead it through to make it one of the most respected in the area,” he says. “I’m really proud of that.”

He should be, Peterson says of his friend and former colleague.

“He really is a servant. He serves the clients being served by CDS. He serves his own staff and he serves the community,” he explains. “It’s that driven personality around service to others that I think really makes him something special.”

vspicer@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-653-4021

Title: President and CEO, CDS Life Transitions

Age: 60

Education: B.A., psychology, Mid-America Nazarene College, 1981; MPA, SUNY College at Brockport, 1996

Home: Penfield

Family: Wife, Yvonne; daughter, Abigail; and son, Andrew

Activities: Golf, reading, travel

Quote: “We are a people organization. You’re touching lives so you have to be your best. And I am so proud of the team we have here.”

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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