In 2021 Penn-Mar will be celebrating its 40th Anniversary. It’s hard to believe I have been with the organization for 32 of those years. But this journey from a residential program director to CEO has given me a front row seat to observe and reflect on its incredible and ever-evolving transformation.
A group of parents from Maryland and Pennsylvania started Penn-Mar in 1981 with the purest and noblest of motivations: they loved their kids and needed to figure out what life could look like for them post-school. Back then there was no local human services agency and not many educational, vocational or residential options for young adults with disabilities.
Fortunately these families decided to use their collective talents and resources to make something happen. So collaboration — one of Penn-Mar’s current Core Values — was at the root of our humble beginnings.
If you were to sit in a team meeting 40 years ago, you would have noticed that a large part of the conversation was directed to the family members, asking them what they wanted for their kids as opposed to asking their children directly.
Today, as we have evolved from a care model to one of support, we are listening intently to the people we support to help expose them to a host of opportunities related to their interests so they can make realistic, informed decisions about what they want out of life.
People’s decision-making is ultimately constricted by their life experience. As an example, I can guarantee you that 20 years ago if you were to survey the people we support and ask them what their favorite restaurant was it would have been McDonalds.
What we all think is “the ultimate” is based on our individual experiences. Before I traveled extensively as an adult, I would have said that the best vacation destination was Virginia Beach where I spent my childhood. But my choices now reflect a wider breadth of knowledge, experience and understanding.
People with disabilities, like you and me, need the opportunity to know more things to make better choices. That is the thing that has changed the most in our field and in our organization over the past 40 years. We no longer tell them what they should like but rather help them to experience richer things from a broader point of reference to see what is possible in life.
Forty years ago people with Down Syndrome would have never dreamed of getting married.
Twenty years ago was rare for a person with a disability to have a job and earn a paycheck at anywhere other than a fast food restaurant or supermarket.
It has taken far too long for “community integration” and a “person-centered culture” to become mainstream in our field.
But today people with disabilities can pursue their passions and hone their skills in our day programs as well as out in the community, finding challenge, meaning, and success in a variety of pursuits.
What a difference 40 years of innovation has made at Penn-Mar.
Here there is never a shortage of “what’s next” big ideas under consideration. And as we begin to navigate the post-COVID world, we will be taking along the hard-earned and valuable lessons we learned during the pandemic.
Our marching orders going forward in the next 40 years will be to continually innovate and share our successes, influencing other organizations like ours to enrich the practices of our field.
The bedrock of the Penn-Mar organization was 12 families who loved their kids and wanted the best life for them. What we call things, how we structure our programming, even how we advocate for our team members and the 600 people we now support, may have taken on different meanings. But while many things have certainly changed over the past 40 years, our legacy of love has not.
Your support in this difficult year, and the many years leading up to this moment, have been critical to our success. We send you our best wishes and gratitude during this very special season and for the New Year ahead.