Henry Leads Proactive, Person-Centric SARAH, Inc.
Proactive and person-centric. Those are two words you’ll hear often from SARAH, Inc.’s new executive director, Denise Henry.
Denise began her new role on Nov. 1, 2017, and already is advancing the organization’s goal of providing services, support, and advocacy to enrich the lives of people with differing abilities. The organization also supports the families of those people, and the communities in which they live.
SARAH, Inc., grew out of the efforts of three Guilford families who banded together back in 1957. The Reinhardsen, Spencer, and McNeil families founded SARAH to give their children with intellectual and other disabilities—and others’ children—important resources and advocacy that didn’t exist for them at that time. Today, the SARAH family of agencies includes SARAH Foundation, SARAH Tuxis, SARAH Seneca, and SARAH, Inc.
“Every agency has their own culture and flavor,” says Denise, now in her fifth year with SARAH, Inc., where she’s found “very talented leadership and a very committed, very mission-driven board.”
Denise says SARAH, Inc. has grown and become increasingly responsive in recent years, in large part due to retired executive director Patricia Bourne, who served from 2006 to Oct. 31, 2017. As associate director, Denise worked closely with Bourne, who is credited with helping SARAH, Inc., expand its reach to provide support and services to more than 600 children and adults with differing abilities across the Greater New Haven and shoreline area. SARAH, Inc., is best-known for its adult services, but helping infants through toddlers is another important piece of SARAH, Inc.’s services.
“I think it’s part of our history that we’re thought of more of an adult-centric agency, because our Birth to Three Early Intervention program came later, but it’s also huge part of who we are,” says Denise.
She wants to enhance SARAH’s digital marketing and social media presence to help open more channels of communication for SARAH, Inc.
“One of the things I’m looking at is to continue the good work of my predecessor, Pat Bourne. But while we are committed to our legacy, we’re also looking at digital marketing and social media and how that’s changing, because we want to connect with community wherever we’re located and beyond. For example, these are difficult times for funding. How do we connect with the broader community to let them know what we can do to assist them? We’ve really embraced what that means, and part of it is to make our digital marketing and social media presence more known.”
It’s an exciting time for SARAH, Inc., and Denise shares several new programs and opportunities now underway.
The Birth to Three Early Intervention program (also known as KIDSTEPS), which now serves 31 towns stretching from southern Connecticut to eastern Connecticut, has recently moved to a new facility to help meet growing needs.
“We are now the third-largest birth to three early intervention provider in the state,” says Denise. “We just moved in with the Clifford Beers [Autism Center] in Hamden. We’re very forward-thinking in our approaches to providing family and children services, programs, and support.”
KIDSTEPS’ professional staff fans out to homes, child care, and community settings to help children meet developmental goals. The program also provides counseling to families. In addition, Denise and KIDSTEPS Director Elisabeth Teller are dialed in at the state and federal levels to anticipate changing funding impacts to families.
“SARAH really stays ahead of whatever is needed, in regard to what’s happening at state and federal levels, in order to deliver our services and the quality of services,” says Denise.
A Time of Transition
When it comes to assisting adults, Denise is excited to be at the helm of SARAH, Inc., at an evolutionary point in its employment and enrichment offerings.
“We’re very well known for our employment services, such as our group supportive employee services at companies like Big Y and Honeywell [recycling], but we’re also taking some very new and positive directions,” says Denise. “There was a time that the group model/job crew was very much what was considered the model of the time and we did well with that, but we’re seeing it’s a culture change [for the better] of how people of different abilities are being viewed and what they can do. We are staying ahead of that with person-centered, customized support for competitive employment. We’re very much committed to that.”
The changing economy in Connecticut is also making it more difficult to find those crew jobs, Denise adds. SARAH, Inc.’s proactive response has been to create the Transitional Services Program, an entirely new program that’s been in development for about year and is now being piloted in the field.
“It addresses the breadth and depth of needs for adults looking for changes in careers, and really focuses on them becoming competitive employees,” says Denise.
“We have new graduates and people come to us who really want to know how to find and keep competitive employment,” says Denise. “We no longer offer sub-minimum wage jobs. We are fully committed to helping people find minimum wage jobs or better. It goes with the Workforce [Innovation] and Opportunity Act [and] and we’re committed to that philosophy, as well. We’re really looking at person-centered, customized [programming] to help people find employment.”
Denise is working with SARAH, Inc. Director of Employment Services Jen Kostek as the new program rolls out.
“We’re piloting the program now, and I’m happy to say it’s going very well. We’re really looking forward to having a full launch,” says Denise.
In addition to job training experiences, the program offers evaluations for participants to help them find their ideal job and gives them tools to help build a resume, dress for success, and navigate needs such as public transportation. The program hopes to have the participation of a wide variety businesses, says Denise.
“Our director of employment services is broadening the number of businesses we partner with, so they can come in and have some real work experiences and find what they like to do,” she says.
Businesses interested in participating can contact SARAH, Inc.
Another area of exciting growth at SARAH, Inc., is enrichment services, also known as SARAH in Action. In three locations (Madison, Westbrook, and the newest, North Haven), the program model is evolving from facility-based day programming to bringing participants into communities as volunteers, to experience interactive opportunities.
“Enrichment services are just as vital as our employment services,” says Denise. “Enrichment services are day-support option services that offer a variety of activities, some that happen in program [spaces], like science experiments; crafts; exploring different topics on the computer. But it’s not just about being in a facility, it’s becoming more community-integrated. We’re getting out into the community and broadening our volunteer opportunities. They also can build up skills through volunteering, which is also in keeping with our mission.”
To that end, SARAH, Inc.’s new director of enrichment services, Nicole Retano, is “out there connecting with the community. We really want to do more community service,” says Denise, who invites interested community organizations to contact SARAH, Inc.
Retano has already lined up volunteer efforts include helping out at seasonal wildlife rehabilitation facility of Stewart B. McKinney Wildlife Refuge in Westbrook while interactive community outings have included visits to Branford Art Center & Gallery.
“We have a really nice partnership with Branford Arts Center, where the group is doing really cool projects,” says Denise.
Denise notes SARAH, Inc., also offers “blended services” that can put together person-centered, customized skill-building and work experiences with enrichment opportunities to meet the needs of families and individuals. SARAH, Inc., is also there to assist families with navigating state and federal funding options.
“It’s about providing what you want and what you need; we work with you and your team,” says Denise. “If a family is unsure or uncertain what steps are to be taken, we are willing and able to work with them on that and come up with a package.”
As she takes on leading SARAH, Inc., Denise, an Oakdale resident, brings three decades of experience with support and service agencies including United Cerebral Palsy of Eastern Connecticut and Mosaic. In addition to her administrative and leadership skills, Denise brings the heart of a behavioral clinician who fell in love with the work after she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
“When I was working on my master’s, I was going to be focusing on early interventions with children, and I had an opportunity to do an internship at a state regional center just as de-institutionalization was underway in Connecticut. I found I was really able to connect and work well with adults that have really challenging behaviors,” says Denise. “While I loved working with children, I found I was able to help adults who have difficulty communicating and were frustrated by that, and were showing their frustration maybe through challenging behaviors. It’s about looking at why that’s happening and helping them come up with a behavorial plan to express themselves in a more appropriate and adaptive way.”
Throughout her administrative career, Denise has continued to carry with her the importance of connecting with people.
“What’s helped me to connect in leadership roles is that experience I had,” she says. “It has added to how I connect with people—by listening, taking a step back and not rushing to judgment.”
Learn more about SARAH, Inc., at www.sarah-inc.org