I/DD Topics & Trends with Bryan Neider

Bryan Neider, CEO of Ability Path – Provider of Exceptional Programs & Services

Who do you serve? And what programs does AbilityPath offer?

Bryan: We operate in San Mateo and Santa Clara County. We like to say we have a lifespan of services. So our programs start with early assessments, as well as a Family Resource Center. We then have multiple therapy programs, occupational speech, physical therapy, early interventionists, we operate three inclusive preschools. And then we have a wide array of adult programs from independent living services to support employment day programs, community access programs. So we serve folks from the very youngest age into senior hood. 

So what makes your programs at AbilityPath so exceptional? 

Bryan: I think that for all of us doing this work, it starts with having an incredible team. We have very dedicated professionals, both within the therapy practice, our early childhood education teachers and our special education teachers. And of course, the folks in our adult services program are very passionate about the work and I think their dedication really shined during COVID and really showed their support and care for the community that we serve. So I think it starts with our people.

Can you talk a bit about the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs at AbilityPath?

Bryan: During the summer, we did a deep dive on the state of our diversity, equity, and inclusion in our programs. We certainly have had an inclusive focus for individuals with developmental disabilities, but people are not one dimensional, and they have many aspects to who they are, their background, their religion, and their ethnicity. We actually brought in a third party firm to do a full audit of our entire organization top to bottom on where we stand with the quality of our diversity, equity, and inclusion. That report was shared with all of our staff and the board. And we have made a very strong commitment to be a leader in diversity, equity, inclusion, and all aspects of what that means for our team, for those we serve, and our community at large.

Were there any obstacles you encountered in implementing your diversity, inclusion, and equity program?

Bryan: I’m happy to say that our teams have embraced it. I have been very vocal in some messages that we’ve sent out going back to a year ago. And obviously, since then, I’ve probably only received a few emails that were not supportive. And honestly, at some point, I think in life, you have to take a stand. And the stand that we’ve taken is that diversity, equity, and inclusion is critical to our mission. I think we have a moral obligation to ensure everyone in the community is fully accepted, respected, and included.

What does it take to run an organization like yours that serves IDD individuals?

Bryan: I think the first thing is that there is an element of authenticity about what we’re trying to accomplish. And sometimes that may mean providing some messages about shortcomings that we’ve had, but being upfront about that and I think also painting a vision of what the future can be. And I think that there’s an element of commitment to making change happen, because we work in a system that has been chronically underfunded. But that can’t be a roadblock or an excuse for not driving positive change, and program improvements forward. So I think it is an element of perseverance, an element of compassion, a lot of creativity, and innovation. And, being a good listener for what the folks that we serve are telling us and what our team is telling us that they need as well. 

How do you ensure that the staff and AbilityPath have that great attitude?

Bryan: I think the kind of great equalizer in that is having a culture that fosters that kind of approach. And so I think after some point, either people join in that exuberance in having a positive attitude, or the rejection from the team around them may actually let them know that that’s not this is not the place for them to be. So I think the team actually helps set the tone and the tenor for having a positive attitude. And one thing that we’ve tried to reinforce that I think has been helpful is that our role is to be life coaches.  And we sort of take that approach, we’re here to help the folks that we serve reach their full potential, without limitation. And if we’re life coaches, it’s a very different kind of role in how we think about our role of serving.

What are some of the challenges that a service provider like AbilityPath faces?

Bryan: I think it’s one that we probably all face being in the Bay Area in particular. It is the cost of housing for our staff, for those that we serve, and having adequate housing for both the community at large and in our teams. I think commutes have also been an issue. So if folks are living across the bay, or from South San Jose commuting up to where our locations are, that’s been a challenge. So I think most of them are structural. And then, the chronic underfunding has been a challenge on how you manage that. So things like that are really important to understand how it works on the entire community that we serve and trying to understand better ways to serve.

What’s going on with the state budget?

Bryan: So the latest that we have, as of this morning, is that the state assembly in the State Senate has proposed that the rate study or funding study the state and Department of Developmental Services did several years ago; they’re proposing that the full recommendation be implemented over the next three years. We don’t have any inkling what the governor is going to do with that yet. So maybe something happened this afternoon I’m not aware of. But our understanding is the governor’s reviewing all of the budget. And we’re not sure where the developmental disability system sits within that proposal.

As you know, the system has been underfunded for the better part of 20 years. To give you an idea what that gap is, the gap identified by the study that the state paid for was about 1.8 billion, which is nearly 20% of the entire system. So I don’t know if any business can operate at a 20% operating deficit from what they need, with rising costs for housing, and cost of living for our staff. And yet you think about what we’ve done. It’s remarkable how resilient and creative every service provider has been to keep things going. And in a weird way, that’s probably been to our detriment, because I think that sometimes when it comes to the budget, they maybe feel like we’re crying wolf, when in fact, there’s been a lot of structural investment that has not happened, which is necessary. And we’ve seen the crisis really play out in the last three or four years. And I am really guardedly optimistic that we’re going to see some funding coming back into the system that is long overdue.

Is there something listeners can do to help swing this in favor of what’s been proposed by the legislature?

Bryan: There are a couple of things. The first thing is that we have a tool that you can go in and easily fill out your name, and email, and a message that will go straight to the governor and will tell him that you support the funding of the rate study gap that the Assembly and Senate have already approved. So I’d say check out the website, you can go to the ARC of California, they have it on their website, CDSA, which is again, a service member organization. There are multiple places they can go. Go in and fill it out tonight, and send it off and get it to the governor. The last time we had a major campaign like this we had about 40,000 letters and emails that went to the State Assembly and State Senate to provide funding relief. So I’d say do that if you can and reach out and let them know how important this is for our system.

Are there any areas that I missed that our listeners might be interested in?

Bryan: One other thing about this funding challenge: we have a very robust development team, and we have to raise about 10 to 15% of our funding for our programs through donations and donors. We’re at about a 20 plus million dollar program, so this gives you an idea of what that funding gap is at the state level. So if it wasn’t for donors, supporters, and grants from various foundations, it would be a real challenge to be able to keep all of the programs operating at a high quality level. So we’re blessed to have a very supportive community that allows us to do that.

Is there anything else that folks can do to support AbilityPath? Obviously, the donations really help, but what else can people do?

Bryan: Now that we’re coming out of COVID, there’s always volunteer events and we have various activities throughout the year. I’d encourage folks to check out our website at abilitypath.org. And there are all sorts of volunteer opportunities. And wherever you can, have an inclusive mindset. So whether or not that’s employment, if it means you have a child in a program that may be there’s a special needs kid in the class, include that kid in a birthday party by inviting them. I’ve been in parent groups where they’ve talked about what they described as the shrinking social circle for special needs parents. And they said, as time went on and as their kids age, the invitations to participate in events with their friend’s kids started to shrink. So I would encourage everybody to be inclusive in your mindset in all aspects, where you can bring people in to be part of it. And I think that’s a great way that I think carries on our mission for everybody.

What is AbilityPath’s success with corporate sponsorship? And what does it take to get significant fundraising initiatives with corporations? 

Bryan: I think we’ve had good success. So there are two places where corporations have played very important roles for us. And I’m certain of many other organizations. One is we have a kind of a marquee fundraising event each Spring. And we’ve had quite a few corporate sponsors that are lead donors and underwriters for that event. Many of them have been employment partners that have supported our employment program on their campuses over many, many years. The other is building relationships with corporations from volunteer events that end up leading to support for employment opportunities, and or engagement and fundraising events. One they were just talking about earlier today, in fact, is that we had an aqua-thon pre-COVID, and this was swimming teams primarily sponsored and put together by local corporations. So folks at Google, LinkedIn, Intuit, and others would put together swim teams. And we’re fortunate, they picked our mission to support and they helped generate a fundraiser, but that’s how they got engaged. And obviously, their donation along with corporate matching gifts have made a difference. It’s easier to work with someone that you may know in the company. Many of the larger corporations have community affairs folks, community relations, that help oversee those kinds of activities.

The other thing that’s happened in the last few years is most large employers have created employee resource groups. So they will be topic based, usually employee organized, and everything from an employee resource group. I’ve had a chance to speak at a couple for the special needs community for those company’s employees, and talk about what we offer, talk about other services that are out there from other providers. So that’s another way if you have an opportunity to talk to them with an employee resource group, you can share your message and your mission with them. I hope that helps.

How has the company culture at AbilityPath and LSA been affected by the pandemic? 

Dana: I think the pandemic definitely challenges our culture, whether it’s what we’re talking about ourselves individually in our families, or whether we talk about the organization, because it forced us to cut down on human interaction and being out in the community. And so, I think it was a challenge from the beginning. Some of the ways that you can overcome that is to try and up the communication using video tools, like Zoom. Everybody kids about Zoom fatigue, but it sure helped a lot to put people together, face to face, virtually. And whether that was the residents in our homes, with their families, or with their friends, or with their programs. And so, I think all of that really helped soften the impact. As things are starting to open back up, we see a lot of smiles and a lot of excited people that do really miss being engaged and included in some of the activities that they knew and loved from before. So we’ve got work to do,  to re-engage, and hopefully re-engage in a better way. Not just return to normal, but hopefully continue to move the needle forward.

Bryan: I had a very similar experience to what you described, Dana. And I think the lack of connection certainly strained relationships and it was more of a longing to see people. You’d sort of notice that whenever there was an opportunity to tell you to get together in some setting, even with a few people being in the office at the same time, it’s like you’re on a desert island, and you had seen somebody for the first time in a year. It’s pretty remarkable. Same sort of thing, just this joy of seeing people again. So I think it was hard to stay connected.

But you know, I think as we come out of it, while we’ve all been fatigued at points throughout it, when you look back, it’s, I think it’s the importance of having a higher calling. And the higher calling is to serve. And when our teams have looked back at what we were able to do during the pandemic, there’s an enormous sense of pride, but also an enormous sense of satisfaction of: “I worked really hard, and it was tough. But I made a difference in somebody’s life.” For me, I feel like this mission found me. And I feel blessed to be able to be doing this work. How often you get to be able to spend your time and energy trying to make a difference and help people out? And I think our teams feel that same thing through the pandemic. And that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a bad day of zoom when you said “I’m fried.” But in retrospect, we made it to the top of the hill, and people feel good about it. And we now see that kind of camaraderie coming back like we went through the war together, and we survived.

What do employee listening devices do in order to improve employee experiences? What types of things do you put in place in order to listen to them? Do you do town halls? 

Bryan: We do an anonymous employee survey. With every team, we do an individual team survey. So it is essentially twice a year organizational wide. And then individually within each unique discipline. So therapists will have one, adult programs, etc. We have town halls. We take the surveys very seriously.  I have held open Zoom hours for people to dial in or open office hours for people to stop by. I attend multiple manager meetings, some staff meetings, and then in this last year, we created employee resource groups in our own organization, and so those are another way to get feedback, We have the DEI Alliance Committee, which has been very important providing direct feedback to us on our organizational health in the DEI area. They’ve had a great influence, they drafted our DEI statement, which you can see on our website. So we use all those tools.

I assumed in all this, that you have to have a culture that feels comfortable sharing the truth. Because it’s one thing to have an anonymous survey that leaves things out, and it’s another to hear a story from somebody that thinks something needs to be changed. And so part of it for myself and for managers is being able to be comfortable with hearing things you may not want to hear, but you have to hear. Because people are reluctant to tell you sometimes the truth for fear of reprisal. Or you may take it the wrong way, where you take it too personally, when in fact they’re trying to share with you because they care about the organization.  That’s not to say that we aren’t all human, and sometimes feedback hurts. I’d rather hear it and be able to change it, then not here and have everybody talking about it behind my back. You have to be willing to listen to hear the hard stuff and make people feel comfortable having shared it with you.

Group homes and small providers have really struggled with inadequate funding. Is consolidation a solution? What are the pros and cons? 

Dana: That’s a totally timely question. Just six weeks ago, a small provider approached us, because they were looking at going out of business. They were not able to find staff and we’re in talks to make that organization part of ours. I think there is something to the notion of scale. Sometimes bigger is not better, but certainly bigger can be more economical, at least in terms of certain areas. But it’s particularly difficult for a small provider, because they have all the same problems a bigger one has, but less resources to be able to throw at solving them. So I don’t know what the real answer is, but I think if we continue to not get some resolution on the rates side of things, it’s going to happen more often. And it always comes with a huge impact on the people. This particular home has four individuals that have lived there for upwards of 20 years. And you know, the possibility of it just closing with three weeks notice to find something else is heartbreaking. As an organization, we’re certainly going to do what we can to continue to grow. When I came to LSA we had three homes, and we have 14 today. And it wasn’t easy to grow, but we grew by partnering with donors and organizations that we work with to do that in a thoughtful way that we believe is sustainable. 

Bryan: I think mergers are absolutely necessary to improve the overall delivery of service. If you think about all of the infrastructure that multiple organizations have, there is no efficiency in that. And that means that cost has taken away from going into staff salaries. And so we’ve done three mergers; two smaller ones, a therapy one, and then we took over a program that had to close its doors last September during COVID. And then in 2019, we did a larger one with Abilities United and GatePath. And that was a much larger merger. The savings from the administrative functions and everything kind of in that allowed us to significantly increase compensation for all of our staff. So pretty much everything that we saved from that area went right back into program investment, laptops, smart devices that do case management, and staff salaries. So it’s very different from a traditional merger in a for profit space.

So I think one of the pros and cons assessments right up front has to be: is there a meeting of the hearts? Do the organizational cultures blend together well enough to where they’re going to be able to carry the mission out? Because the cultures are too far apart, it’s going to really impact service and employee morale in a very negative way. So I think they absolutely have to happen, it’s just a lot of duplication of so many areas. Accounting, HR, IT,  Marketing, Development work, and all that stuff becomes a real challenge if it’s duplicated over and over again, versus actually being able to put that back into staff. 

If you could wave a magic wand right now, and change anything about the way that we provide services to the IDD community, what would you change? 

Dana: I guess it’s in the whole area of regulations. Adult residential facilities have to be licensed and vendorized. It’s just so constraining at times that some additional flexibility would allow us to be even better. An example might be meeting the minimum staffing hours when there are more hours and are needed to provide the right level of care and support. But you got to go ahead and provide them because otherwise  bad things will happen. So, a little more flexibility. We unfortunately live in sometimes overly bureaucratic systems, and I think that wastes a lot of money.That would be mine. I’d wave it with some caution, but it would come in handy.

Bryan: With Dana’s wand, we’re gonna get the funding. So I think my wand is really more around society’s perception of what’s possible for the people that we serve. And I’ll use two examples. One is that when the Special Olympics first started, there were very few events. The population we serve didn’t change. What did change was society’s perception of their ability to participate in nearly 100 events now, versus a half dozen. And the records that they’re setting and the abilities that they’re demonstrating have always been present. It’s been society’s limitation that they put on the people that we serve. And we did a thing with Genentech where we had job coaching and interview skills, and all the folks that we serve that were participating, put together dream boards, and on those dream boards, human aspirations are universal. It doesn’t make any difference who you are or where you live. We want friendship, we want love, we want happiness. We like beaches, we enjoy the sun, we love dogs and cats, and some people like fancy cars. The reality is that we hold back the people that we serve by not thinking big and listening to them on what their desires are. So I would ask society to think a little bit differently, and listen harder to believe what is possible and make it happen for the folks that we serve. 

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