If you’ve visited CDS Life Transitions in the last couple of years, you’ve likely met Bob Terry. Terry has worked part time as a receptionist for the agency for the last three years. That job, and the apartment Terry recently moved into, probably would not have happened were it not for Heritage Christian Services.
“They’re great, as far as focusing on the individual and helping them get to where they want to be and possibly further,” Terry explained. “They’re just good about helping people that they support.”
Terry, 35, has been using the nonprofit’s services some 17 years, he said. He has traveled through the residential services HCS offers and had lived in group homes and in supported living, but the goal always was to move out on his own. At 34, he got to do that.
And while Terry lives alone in his apartment, HCS continues to provide supports to him in the form of individuals who come daily to help him with meal preparation, bill paying, grocery shopping and other activities.
Terry’s growth during his time with the agency is obvious to both him and outsiders: “From where I was to where I am now, yeah,” he said.
Like many human services organizations, Heritage Christian Services was established by families who had found themselves in need of services for their children with disabilities as they reached adulthood.
Marie and Bob Pieters, Gail and Bob Otto and Jobina and Pete Bruinsma held their first meeting nearly 40 years ago, in November 1979, and a year later HCS was born. The organization became a not-for-profit in 1981, the same year the United Church of Christ in Webster gave land to the agency in order to found the first Heritage Christian Home.
The home was opened 35 years ago on June 24, 1984.
“Originally the vision was residential services for adults,” said HCS President and CEO Marisa Geitner. “Our services have grown and expanded and shifted based upon the unique needs of the folks that we are in a relationship with.”
HCS added daytime services for adults with disabilities outside of congregate environments and community-based hub locations, Geitner said.
“Our day habilitation program kind of became a community-based model and partnership with other community members,” she added.
HCS then began offering service coordination, which in the last couple of years has shifted from human service provider agencies to Care Coordination Organizations such as Person Centered Services and Prime Care Coordination.
Heritage Christian Services is now the fourth-largest nonprofit agency in the Rochester metropolitan area and 11th-largest employer. The agency has 2,600 staffers in Rochester, as well as employees at its Buffalo facilities.
Nearly 23,000 people are served by HCS each year.
“Buffalo came about similar to Rochester: We were approached by a group of families who had come together under the name Faith Foundation, and those families were looking to try to do the same thing for their adult children in the Buffalo area,” Geitner said.
The first Heritage Christian Home was opened in Buffalo 23 years ago.
Today HCS has services that run the gamut. For individuals with intellectual disabilities, HCS continues to offer residential and day services, as well as employment services through the Employment Alliance and Project SEARCH.
“That provides employment support, job coaching and job seeking,” Geitner said of the Employment Alliance. “We have the Center for Human Service Education, which provides education around services and caregiving all around the state. And we have a few contracts that bring us outside of New York State, and we’re hoping for more of those.”
HCS also has community impact programs that include things like Springdale Farm, an interactive, county-owned farm in Spencerport that is operated by the agency as a day habilitation location for individuals with disabilities.
Heritage Christian Stables is a 13-acre equestrian therapy program that offers therapeutic riding for children and adults. HCS also runs A Second Thought, a thrift store in East Rochester that funds HCS’ international work.
The Pieters Family Life Center in Henrietta, which opened in 2007, is an athletic and fitness and community center that serves the full community in an inclusive and partnership-driven setting.
“It’s really a cooperative environment for organizations who are serving anyone and everyone, who may themselves not have their own space, who may need space for health and wellness programming or social programming,” Geitner explained.
On the same campus is the first of three inclusive Expressive Beginnings Child Care facilities. A fourth is being discussed in Penfield.
“Those are fully inclusive child cares,” Geitner said. “We do serve children who may have unique needs, but no one would be the wiser. Everyone is welcomed into that program.”
The agency’s community impact programs were born out of experiences with individuals who already were being served by HCS, as well as what the community seemed to need, Geitner said.
“So by nature they’re intended to serve the community and they’re intended to meet a unique impact,” she added.
But HCS is ever-evolving in order to offer what is most needed by the clients and communities it serves. The organization has a number of emerging services, “which is kind of what we call our services that move outside of specific program walls,” Geitner said.
HCS is participating in a nationwide move toward consumer-directed services.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Drew Bielemeier, senior vice president of operations for HCS. “The next stage that we’re living in is this movement to individualize, customize services. In our industry they really call that self-direction.”
Self-direction allows individuals to choose which resources they want to spend their allotted funds on. Individuals have brokers who can help them make decisions like which day programs they want to take part in. A fiscal intermediary will then help the individual and their family, or circle of support, to use those dollars to customize the supports they want and need, Bielemeier explained.
Inclusivity is an important part of Heritage Christian Services’ future, Bielemeier said.
“How do we make sure those supports and services are inclusive of the community? They’re not segregated types of settings, but they’re really welcoming in the community so our communities have wonderful experiences and exposure to people with intellectual disabilities,” he said. “Because we truly believe that all people have something to offer and when we embrace the diversity of all we’re actually a stronger community.”
Employment services are essential to providing individuals with dignity and a sense of self.
“The Employment Alliance is an example of that, where we’re working with individuals right out in 115 different employers or businesses, and our support alongside the individual into that environment,” Geitner explained of that particular emerging service.
Bielemeier noted that 15 or 20 years ago, many individuals who were approaching adulthood would be placed directly in a day program.
“We wouldn’t even be thinking that those individuals we should be looking at as part of a workforce,” he said. “Today that number is changing. We’re seeing how employment can be such a positive in a person’s life, and rather than somebody taking the taxpayers’ dollars, they’re actually adding into it.”
Joanie Parker, HCS’ associate vice president of education and employment, said that makes the agency a “provider of talent” to help businesses meet their needs, while also helping them understand the case for hiring diversity within their workforce.
Parker describes the camaraderie that happens within the workplace when it is diverse and inclusive, but also notes that businesses stand to gain in other areas as well.
“It’s also, from an economic standpoint within our community, meeting a great business need. It’s a talent or opportunity that not all businesses have out there to have somebody come to them and say we’re willing to meet your business needs at no cost to you, and we’ll provide the support to help this individual be successful on the job until they’re able to be successful without our support,” she explained.
HCS serves more than 300 people in its employment program, Parker noted.
“Part of the service is really identifying where the individual’s skills and talents are so that you can get a good match and job placement for where that talent would be best served,” she explained of the employment process. And she said HCS has received positive feedback about the program.
With unemployment at an all-time low, communities are “embracing diversity at greater levels than we’ve seen before in terms of people with disabilities,” Bielemeier said.
“The (human services) industry has shifted because it realizes how important that fit is. We shouldn’t just be happy that a person with an intellectual disability has a job,” he added. “They should have the same options that you and I have for a job that we enjoy, that we’re passionate about, that we are aligned with. Once we started doing that as a support in this industry, I think we’ve had more success.”
HCS prides itself on innovation, Geitner said. In fact, some five years ago or so, some HCS employees thought it would be a good idea to explore environmental responsibility while tackling efficiencies related to waste.
“We looked at everything; we looked at how we were recycling within each and every program, what our waste was, can we participate in composting programs,” Geitner recalled.
Numerous ideas came from that exploration, not the least of which was the agency’s decision to move to solar power.
“We are able to be part of a partnership where we’re purchasing back solar energy at a discounted rate, which ultimately, a few years out, we expect to have over $1 million in savings in our energy, based on today’s costs,” Geitner said, noting that the agency is moving forward on a second solar project because its first is not able to serve each of the organization’s 120 physical locations. “Even when we’re building a new building we make as much effort as possible to make sure they’re as efficient as possible. But even after they’re built we’re always looking for ways to be as efficient as we can be (because) 1) it’s the right thing to do, and 2) it provides savings back to the organization.”
Geitner said the agency’s importance to the community is a direct result of its frontline support.
“That is the heart and the reputation of our entire organization,” Geitner said. “It’s so important to us. We’re so blessed to have so many frontline professionals who take that seriously and every day bring the absolute best to the work that they do. That, in turn, has a huge impact on our community.”