FirstMerit Legacy Award: Meaningful change

Dennis Allen, president and CEO, Hattie Larlham

With the uncertainty of today’s economic climate, many CEOs are hesitant to expand their organizations or invest in new ventures. But Dennis Allen didn’t grow his organization to what it is today by taking the safe road to success. Rather, as president and CEO of the nonprofit Hattie Larlham, Allen continues to advance his organization’s tradition of quality care by expanding its services year after year to better serve people with developmental disabilities.

When Allen joined the organization, it was providing services to 180 families. Today, Hattie Larlham has been able to expand those services to care for more than 1,500 children and adults with developmental disabilities. It’s initially small operating budget of $7 million has increased to a current annual budget of $32 million. This is the fourth time the organization has been honored by Cascade Capital Corp. for business growth. Today, the company’s more than 700 employees throughout Northeast Ohio continue to fill an important need by enhancing the quality of life for hundreds of people and their families.

Allen is a strong advocate for the idea that every individual, with or without disabilities, has the right to meaningful employment. With this vision in mind, he has taken the lead in continuing to challenge the social norms that say people with disabilities are not fit for mainstream employment. One of the key ways Allen has done this is through the creation and implementation Hattie Larlham’s social enterprise programs throughout Northeast Ohio. In the past five years, Hattie Larlham has significantly strengthened its focus on growing these programs, which offer employment opportunities to people with developmental disabilities. Because this group is a population that is predominately unemployed, the programs go a long way to help dispel common myths about people with disabilities.

While the goal of Hattie Larlham’s social enterprise programs is help people with developmental disabilities gain the skills needed to one day transition into the general workforce, it is not the only benefit for employees. Some of the organization’s current programs include Hattie Larlham Doggie Day Care & Boarding, Hattie’s Café & Gifts, and Hattie’s Vending Company, which services nearly 100 vending machines in Akron and the surrounding region. Hattie’s ability to provide these programs has indefinable value by helping give people a sense of purpose and the self-esteem that comes with having a job. As an example, one employee at Hattie’s Café & Gifts was extremely shy when she started, but as she expanded her responsibilities, she gained the confidence to take on a leadership role and eventually train other employees.

Yet Allen seeks not just to improve and build on the organization’s current successful social programs. He is constantly looking for opportunities to pioneer new programs, as well. The company’s latest social enterprise program, Hattie’s Garden, expands the organization’s employment training options to include sustainable agriculture. Partnering with Crown Point Ecology Center in Bath, Hattie now can have its job coaches work with Crown’s knowledgeable staff to teach employees with disabilities about using sustainable farming methods.

Under Allen’s leadership, Hattie has made significant progress both in expanding its scope of services and its impact, making major strides in creating vocations for a largely unemployed sector of the work force. In just the past year, the organization has not only launched Hattie’s Garden, but also opened three new Hattie’s Café and Gifts locations as well as a new location of Hattie Larlham Doggie Day Care & Boarding, added more vending machines to Hattie’s Vending Company and moved the operation of one Hattie Larlham Doggie Day Care & Boarding location to a larger site.

Allen’s hallmark focus on innovation, particularly in these programs, will continue to be instrumental in the future of the organization and Hattie’s delivery of its mission in years to come. Today, Hattie’s social programs expand across a wide range of industries and occupations, giving people with developmental disabilities who participate in them the chance to gain valuable skills in rewarding work environments. Currently, there are 158 employees with developmental disabilities working in Hattie Larlham’s social enterprise programs, many of whom have been able to move successfully into mainstream jobs since.

How to reach: Hattie Larlham, (330) 274-2272 or