Executive Spotlight: Rich Weisenflue, president and CEO of Berkshire Family & Individual Resources
PITTSFIELD — Rich Weisenflue likes athletics as much as he enjoys working with people with disabilities. He camped out on Brodie Mountain in the late 1980s, when he came to the Berkshires for his first interview at a social service agency.
A self-described "gym rat" as a high school basketball player growing up outside Scranton, Pa., Weisenflue is currently CEO of Berkshire Family & Individual Resources in North Adams, a nonprofit that works with people who have developmental disabilities. Founded in 1994, BFAIR has grown rapidly during its first 25 years of existence.
On Oct. 25, a masquerade gala honoring that anniversary will take place at the Proprietor's Lodge in Pittsfield. The agency currently has over 300 employees serving more than 600 people, and has expanded its services outside the Berkshires. Weisenflue has been at BFAIR for most of that growth — he's currently in the 19th year at the agency.
We met with Weisenflue recently to talk about how he became involved in the social services, what he enjoys about working people with disabilities, the changes BFAIR continues to go through and why he finds outdoor activities like cycling and snowshoeing so appealing. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: How did you get involved in working in the social services?
A: My best friend's father ran a facility in northeastern Pennsylvania that served adults with developmental disabilities and Down Syndrome. After I graduated from high school I asked his father about a job. So he offered me a job and it just felt right, comfortable. I was in direct care at that point, and the agency ran a summer camp, so I continued through the summer in the Poconos. And then I never really stepped away from it.
Q: What is about the work that you like?
A: I appreciate who people with developmental disabilities are, their interests, the things they like to do. It's a group of people who really appreciate the help. You enjoy being with them. It's relaxed and comfortable.
Q: What did you do at the beginning of your career?
A: One of the really enjoyable things I did once I graduated from the University of Scranton was the same agency offered me a position as a house parent. So I was a live-in house parent with 12 men for five years in the Poconos. That was just an enjoyable five years that were unforgettable. If anything that was the hook.
Q: How did you come to the Berkshires?
A: After earning my graduate degree in humans resources administration at the University of Scranton, I started looking for an opportunity. The agency I was with at the time, I didn't see a lot of openings in management. So I looked around and Berkshire County was one of the areas I saw. I came up here to visit and I camped on Brodie Mountain. At that time in 1987, they had camping up there. I spent thee or four days, which was incredibly typical then as far as my interests were then. I used it as a base to travel around.
Q: How did you end up at BFAIR?
A: I was offered a job in 1994 as director of employment services. I did that for three years. From there I gave the for-profit world a try, and a couple of years later I came right back.
A: I missed it. I missed the staff and being around people with disabilities.
Q: In 25 years, BFAIR has gone from an agency that operated a single residential home to a nonprofit with a $15 million budget. How do you account for all that growth?
A: In 2001, when I came back I was offered the position of associate executive director. There were a lot of challenges, financials were one of them, along with a lack of diversity of services ... They were using a management model then that if you and I were doing independent work you would manage yourself as a team. So there was a lack of supervision and teams became somewhat independent of management. So there was a lot of opportunity to restructure. The agency at the time I came back had half of the management team in Pittsfield and the other half in North Adams. As soon as I had the opportunity I brought the full team together based out of North Adams. As far as turning points go, I'd say once the team got together in one location there was renewed interest in joining the agency as a staff person. It was probably 2002 or 2003 when that opportunity presented itself.
Q: How did that turn things around?
A: It certainly infused more communication and teamwork. It gave us an opportunity to meet, just being together and having opportunities for formal and informal discussion. It was also the time we sat down together and created the agency's first strategic plan.
Q: Has anything else assisted in BFAIR's growth?
A: We have an engaged board that's active and interested in our mission. Just look at the point of the 25th anniversary gala. The help with fundraising and with strategic decisions. They're really important in the financial involvement with the agency. Our legislative delegation is really, really positive regarding the services that are provided in this county. Every March, we hold a legislative breakfast and each one to a person are always there listening to people with disabilities expressing to them what their needs are. They are our proponents for services.
Q: Why did BFAIR recently purchase the Redemption Center, a drop-off center for recyclable materials in North Adams?.
A: The purchase of the Redemption Center was a real opportunity. We wanted to make sure that continued because we were running the front end for three years doing the customer service part, and we realized just how well it worked.
Q: How important is the vocational program to BFAIR's mission?
A: It's a significant part. If you look at the whole person, you're talking about residential services and their ability to contribute to the workforce. It's also a great source of self esteem for people with disabilities ... They're a very consistent group of workers. They really appreciate their jobs. They're hard workers.
Q: How does working bring self-esteem to people with developmental disabilities?
A: They become an appreciated member of their community. It's a whole other level of interaction for them with their neighbors and other volunteers ... A lot of what we do is social and community, and social integration is important because people with disabilities can become somewhat isolated or not as integrated into the community as they prefer.
Q: BFAIR restructured its management team earlier this year. Why did you do this and how has it affected the agency?
A: I think it's helped us in terms of strategy and stability in the organization, and it helps in terms of succession and gives the business community and others a clear understanding of management's roles ... I don't know if the management structure wasn't clear before, but if it wasn't in any way it really helped define what our responsibilities are. We're very clear about what our roles are now.
Q: In what areas do you see BFAIR continuing to expand?
A: Certainly with growth in the clinical service area; the in-home clinical services. If you look at the birth rate of people diagnosed with autism years ago it was 1 in 200 births, now its 1 in every 60 to 80 births. So the need for clinical services is greater ... People want to stay in their homes longer if you're able to provide some level of care. I think the elder care in home program will grow as well.
Q: How has the caring for people who have developmental disabilities changed since you've been in the field?
A: The responsibilities of the director and staff are much more intense. You have medication administration and the responsibility of doing that training requirement in order to do that certification. And because of the quality of care that people receive now, they live into their 80s and 90s so their medical needs become more intensive just like everybody else's. We have LPNs and RNs on staff now where before that wasn't the case.
Q: Getting back to camping and the outdoors: have you hiked any major trails?
A: I've done significant sections of the Long Trail in Vermont. As much as I've enjoyed that and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, cycling is probably my passion for outdoor recreation. Probably the most interesting thing I've done as far as cycling was to ride across the state of Iowa, in The Des Moines Register's Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. I did it in the '80s. With some colleagues from the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition we recently rode from Vermont to the Connecticut border.
Q: What do you like so much about the outdoors?
A: I've always participated athletically. It's certainly nice at BFAIR when you have 345 employees and annually serve 550 people to go snowshoeing and get out in the woods or go cycling. It's stress reduction.
Q: Do you still play basketball?
A: No. I twisted my ankles too many times.
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