Executive Spotlight: Ken Singer, CEO Berkshire County Arc
By Tony Dobrowolski
The Berkshire Eagle
PITTSFIELD — When the Berkshire County Association for Retarded Citizens opened its first group home, in 1971, the agency was located in a small office building on Wendell Avenue. It had three part-time employees working with a secondhand filing cabinet donated by General Electric. The yearly budget: $22,000.
Today, Berkshire County Arc operates 42 group homes, has four day habilitation programs and over 800 employees. The agency's operating budget has grown to $36 million since Kenneth W. Singer became the agency's president and CEO in 2014.
Singer, who has been with Berkshire County Arc since January 1980, comes by his social activism naturally. His late father, Kurt Singer, was a World War II-era spy, anti-Nazi activist and author who began publishing an anti-Nazi underground weekly newspaper in Berlin in 1933 with his first wife, Hilde Tradelius. He was forced to flee to Sweden — his wife briefly was incarcerated in a German prison before joining him there. He avoided extradition by obtaining a visa to the United States as a correspondent for a Swedish newspaper.
Ken Singer, who was born in New York City, followed in his father's activist footsteps when, as a teen in the 1960s, he traveled south to participate in the civil rights movement. Working with people who have disabilities was a natural progression for someone who majored in social work and sociology at the University of Toledo.
"I've been involved in social justice since I was a little kid," he said.
I met with Singer recently to talk about his interest in helping people with disabilities, how Berkshire County Arc has grown, how the treatment model for people with mental and physical disabilities has changed over the past 40 years, his famous father and his experiences in the civil rights movement.
Q What's the most rewarding part of your job?
A Seeing the smiles on people's faces; seeing that they're happy and that they have meaningful, quality lives and beautiful places to live. ... It used to be a job when I started, but it's become a mission. I'm proud of that mission, but I have 800 staff who make me look good every day and work to fulfill themselves.
Q How have treatment methods for people with physical and mental disabilities changed since you came to Berkshire County Arc in 1980?
A People had no rights, basically. They were given no choices in life. They weren't accepted into the community. I look back in our history and see the difference and the opportunities that people have now. I look back at some of the leadership we have in Berkshire County Arc. Some of those people have been there for more than 30 years, just like me. They've watched this happen. They were part of this movement. You've heard about the civil rights movement? This was a different kind of civil rights movement. People were given opportunities to say, "Hey, you could live a normal life." I'm very proud that we were part of that.
Q How have you helped to grow the organization?
A In the '70s and going into the '80s, our families and our agency were part of the movement to get people out of institutions who were being persecuted and move them into the community and let them live normalized lives. We started [in 1954] with 10 families that wanted something for their kids, and now it's grown to a $36 million agency serving thousands of people with 800 staff.
Q For many years, people with mental disabilities were placed in large institutions that were like prisons. They began to shut them down in the 1970s. Why did the treatment model change?
A Families advocating. We got the laws changed. I've been in a lot of those institutions. They were horrible. People ask me why I don't like the color light green. It's because the walls [in those institutions] were light green.
Q Is it less expensive to treat people with disabilities under the current treatment models?
A It is less costly. Institutions cost a fortune to run. And obviously, people have real lives. It used to be that if you had disabilities, you weren't allowed to live in a community. We've proved them wrong. ... Most of the people we served in our [group] homes when they started all came out of institutions. They had no control over their lives. They were told what to eat, what to do. And now they live in beautiful homes.
Q How do your vocational programs help people with disabilities enter the mainstream workforce?
A We teach them the interaction, the social skills. Our transitions program helps kids coming out of high school, helps them be part of the community. They work on resumes. They work on self-determination. They work on making decisions for themselves, which, I think, is very important. They do evaluations of people. They find out what they need, where they're at, and we help them get jobs and be part of the community at the same time. ... We have 50 employers that hire people with developmental disabilities.
Q How difficult is it to open group homes for people with disabilities when these residences are located inside the community at large?
A I really haven't had that many issues opening a new home in Berkshire County. I'm not saying never, but I think the main reason is that when [people] meet the folks that live there, they sell it themselves because they're wonderful.
Q How has the lack of qualified workers in the Berkshires affected social service agencies like yours?
A It's tough. Right now our economy is in a situation where unemployment is so low that we can't get good quality staff, especially in the Berkshires, because there aren't enough bodies here. A lot of young people don't stay in Berkshire County. ... We're really struggling at the moment to get good qualified people.
Q Donald Trump has been talking a lot about mental health recently in connection with mass shootings in Texas and Ohio. He's suggested that maybe the U.S. should reopen those mental institutions that used to be in place. What is your response to his comments?
A He has shown that he has a lack of compassion and understanding for people with developmental disabilities. He showed that when he was campaigning by making fun of them. He does not have the support nationally of our community at all.
Q Your father led an interesting life. Tell me about your family background.
A My father was actually born in Vienna. My mother was born in Berlin. They were forced from Germany when my father started this newspaper. He was wanted by Goer-ing, actually, and my mother was held captive in a German prison to try and get him. They finally let her out. He was in Stockholm by that time. She got out, and they got other people out, too, [including] my aunt. ... I’m the only one in my family who was born in this country.
Q What do you remember most from being in the civil rights movement?
A We went to Washington & Lee University [in Lexington, Va.]. We were told at the time that it was the first time that they had blacks on campus except to work. They let us speak. It was one of the most amazing nights of my life. The conversation that went on; it was very stimulating. ... The rumor was, they integrated the movie theater after we left. I don’t know if that’s true or not.
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