Welcome House grows its services for the developmentally disabled by picking up UCP clients

Welcome House Inc. has jumped 30 percent in revenue in the past few months and has brought on new clients, new staff and new vehicles.

It didn’t come without challenges, but Executive Director Tony Thomas and his staff were up to the task.

The organization provides residential and community services to individuals with developmental disabilities in group homes and supported residential sites in Cuyahoga and Lorain counties.

The sudden growth came about as Welcome House agreed to accept United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Cleveland’s 51 clients in its supported living services program as UCP eliminated the program.

UCP decided to focus more on its vocational services than its independent living program. Now, Welcome House will serve a total of 211 clients, growing from its existing 160. In order to care for these new clients, Welcome House is hiring 100 additional direct support providers, growing its staff to 397 people; and existing sites were expanded from 31 to 45.

Meeting the challenge

The biggest hurdle to overcome was dealing with the anxiety of clients and employees, Thomas says.

Thomas assembled an executive leadership team that met weekly, sometimes twice a week, and dealt with transition and staffing issues, as well as concerns among clients and families — any issue that people wanted to discuss.

“I think as a business you have to set up that kind of process,” he says. “You have to set up a process that says you’re going to commit the time to going over each of those transitional issues.

Thomas said some UCP staff members had been working with the agency for 15 to 20 years, and some clients have been with UCP for 30 years.

While it was a difficult decision for them, what Thomas decided to do was to try to engage the different levels of the organization by having large-scale meetings at their site.

“We sent our staff to their site to have meetings to try to engage the staff in conversations about pay, benefits and retirement,” he says. “Those came off incredibly well. But if we tried to have that conversation at our office, it wouldn’t have worked.”

Showing concern was important

Thomas said while it is somewhat rare for an executive director to attend these meetings, he showed up to demonstrate his concern.

“I wanted to make sure that I showed that I was concerned about the transition, willing to listen to people, and I wanted to meet some of the new staff,” he says. “I had an HR person there. I had a fiscal staff person there. … If I couldn’t answer the question, somebody else could.

“We also had to say to ourselves that we didn’t think of the anxiety as a negative thing, as people sometimes do. We thought of it as a positive thing. We were willing to make it happen for them.”

The staff even met with clients and families who could not attend the large-scale meetings, offering them an opportunity to discuss the merger.

“The clients really wanted to know if their staff person was going to stay with Welcome House. And what the staff wanted to know was were these clients going to be forced to move. So we were able to reassure them on that,” Thomas says. “My program director, Bobbie Burkey, attended every one of those meetings. She bent over backwards to make this transition happen.”

Growth plans

A new venture in the works called Welcome House Home Health LLC will offer services to families whose members are in their 60s, 70s or 80s and still have a son or daughter with developmental disabilities living at home with them.

It is estimated that there are 2,000 such families in the region.

“It’s not our goal to serve 2,000 families,” Thomas says. “But if I consider the most needy of that group, if we could provide some services to them, that helps their situation and allows us to grow in a different direction.”

While federal, state and local tax dollars supply much of the revenue for Welcome House, the organization has to raise about $350,000 to $500,000 each year to cover additional expenses.

As a result, Thomas spends about 50 to 60 percent of his time on fundraising matters. The group’s major fundraiser, an annual reverse raffle, is run entirely by volunteers. A Family Advisory Council was set up three years ago to coordinate volunteer activities and to conduct the raffle, which raises about $20,000.

“With this wonderful group of families, I selected two people, and it ended up being three, who would comprise a Family Advisory Council. The council really does a great job of getting volunteers to run our fundraising events,” Thomas says.

How to reach: Welcome House Inc., (440) 356-2330 or www.welcomehouseinc.org