ACHIEVA breaks cycles of isolation and segregation with empowerment


ACHIEVA likes to be ahead of the curve, even if that means sometimes it has to pull back.

“We’re never satisfied with the way that things are,” says Marsha Blanco, president and CEO of the ACHIEVA family of organizations. “We’re a bunch of dreamers, and when we see a problem, a team of us will sit down and come up with ideas about how to solve that problem for individuals and their families.”

Family members who wanted to ensure their children with disabilities had the same chances in life as other children founded ACHIEVA 65 years ago.

The organization has a broad reach with 110 locations. It provides lifelong support to people with disabilities, whether that means therapy at birth or helping people find a job or independent housing.

“We listen carefully to what individuals with disabilities and their families would like to see in support and services, and then we often times design those from scratch,” Blanco says.

ACHIEVA’s mission is to promote inclusion of individuals with disabilities in local community life, which can be more challenging in rural areas.

Until about 60 years ago, people with significant disability were either institutionalized or lived at home with parents or relatives with little or no community support, Blanco says. For example, students with significant disabilities didn’t gain the right to free public education until 1975.

In the relatively new field of inclusion, ACHIEVA is always pushing boundaries.

“Years ago, we attempted, through a lot of local organizations such as fire halls, to have adult guys with disabilities hang out and become a part of that cultural experience, and I think that we were pushing the button before the community was really ready for that,” she says. “So we had to step back a little, and now we do quite a lot of that.”

Matching needs

To be innovative — and solve problems — Blanco says it comes down to staying close to your customers.

“The customer is always going to weed you toward the types of support in our case, or products in other cases, that they’re going to most want,” she says. “We’re a very, very family-oriented organization, so being close with family members and individuals — and they, of course, are our customers — just naturally leads one to know what they most want in their lives.”

Once you understand their needs, it’s incumbent upon an organization to find new and better ways to meet those needs, says Blanco, who considers her job a cross between school superintendent and hospital administrator.

One recent innovative program has been the ACHIEVA Family Trust.

Medicaid is the primary funding source for support for individuals with disabilities, but an individual cannot qualify for Medicaid if he or she has more than $2,000 in personal assets. In essence, it sentences people with disabilities to a lifetime of poverty.

In the mid-1990s, Congress allowed not-for-profits to create pooled trusts, which wouldn’t be counted against the Medicaid qualifications. Blanco says ACHIEVA was the first Pennsylvania organization to start managing these pooled trusts.

Today, after pro bono legal work from K&L Gates LLP, ACHIEVA’s family trust program manages almost $100 million of funding to assist more than 2,000 individuals in all aspects of their lives.

Shifting priorities

Staying close to customers also may lead you to shift your priorities.

The support and services for early intervention for young children, birth to age 3, have settled in because of federal mandates. So, Blanco says ACHIEVA has shifted its focus to adults living with elderly family members.

There are more than 9,000 people in Pennsylvania on housing waiting lists. Not only is ACHIEVA lobbying in Harrisburg to improve the situation, it also created a public/private partnership called “A Home Of My Own.”

Family members or the individuals who don’t require 24-hour oversight can choose a roommate or live alone in an apartment. ACHIEVA then provides the necessary support.

“It’s allowing individuals to get off these lengthy waiting lists for support and services,” Blanco says.

Segregation and isolation were the norm for children and adults with disabilities, but Blanco has seen that change over her career. When children with disabilities are in regular classrooms, their student peers are the employers and housing specialists of tomorrow — and they are used to being together as one community.

She says it’s been a pleasure to help individuals participate in their communities, go to school in regular classrooms and get real jobs.

“I cannot think of anything better that I could’ve done with my career than to be in this period of time of such monumental positive change in the lives of people with disabilities,” Blanco says.