Bill Benson will retire August 31, 2016 as director of CADES in Swarthmore. Almost universally beloved and respected by those who know him and his work, Bill is one of the longest-tenured and most accomplished leaders of any Philadelphia-area social services organization. He has been with CADES and its predecessor United Cerebral Palsy of Delaware County for nearly 39 years, beginning in 1977 as principal of the George Crothers Memorial School, and serving as director for several decades. His career spans a period of great social change and improvement in the ways services are delivered to Pennsylvanians with special needs.
The Swarthmorean asked Bill Benson last month for an “exit interview.” Though a very modest man, Bill was kind enough to reflect on his career, his organization and its services to citizens of all ages, and changes in the social services environment over the years.
What does CADES do?
“We have an infant/toddler program which works with 120 families in their homes once a child has been referred by a parent, the county or a pediatrician. If therapists can get an early start with these kids, whether it be cerebral palsy or a gross motor issue or trouble grasping, crawling, or talking, sometimes they won’t need as much intervention later on.
“Our early intervention program works with preschool age children diagnosed with physical or intellectual disabilities, with one location in Chester and one in Upper Darby. These referrals come through the Delaware County Intermediate Unit [DCIU].”
DCIU also refers children to the George Crothers Memorial School, located in the CADES building which was formerly the Rutgers Avenue School. Crothers serves students aged 3 to 21, including students from beyond county lines, Benson said. “We had a girl who came from Lancaster every day, for services that her district could not provide. She had complex support needs, but we had a staff that could develop an educational therapy program for her.
“Then we have our adult day care program for individuals who need help with all their activities of daily living. Parents who are getting up in years really want a place for their sons and daughters to come. We see a lot of need for that group.
“And we have a residential program, 33 homes, primarily in Delaware County. These usually are single story houses that are ADA accessible, with staff on site 24/7, that are each home to three people living with multiple handicaps, physical as well as intellectual. These homes are funded through federal and state money.
Has the national model of group homes changed since you began at CADES?
“Yes, we’ve certainly gotten away from large institutions. But CADES is one of the few [local organizations] dealing with such complex needs. If you go to our group homes, we don’t have many people who are walking, talking, and able to handle all the activities of daily living (dressing, using the toilet, eating, etc.). We’re different from other facilities that concentrate on residents with just emotional issues.
“A HUD consultant told me he’s surprised that federal and state dollars seem to be somewhat drying up when it comes to expansion for more of these kinds of homes. You never get enough money from government to do all you need to do, so you have to have active development programs. It’s always a balancing act, as you can imagine.”
What are the challenges CADES faces today?
“You always want to maintain good quality programs. We need to keep that a top priority. We want to continue to do good staff training. And we certainly need to look at the salaries for direct care workers. It’s hard work, backbreaking, dealing with another person’s life, taking on responsibility for them. Some of them have two jobs so that they can survive, and we need to respect them, value them, and pay them accordingly. We’ve got to raise the salary levels.”
What are you doing now that you weren’t doing before?
“Fundraising has certainly grown, and the importance of it has grown. As the federal and state money has become tight, fundraising is even more important.
“But here’s a good thing: people with mild disabilities who can make it in their school district, are in their school district. It used to be that many of our clients were ambulatory and verbal. We believe in mainstreaming and inclusion so if these students can go to their regular schools, we support that. We want people to be accepted in the community, and school districts are doing more, employers are doing more.
“We’re now getting clients who need much more support, lots of PT, OT, speech therapy… maybe it’s always going to be that way. There will always be a few very, very needy people, and it’s important that someone is here to meet their needs.”
How did you come to this work?
“I always had a desire to do good and to help people. I thought about missionary work. My mother was an RN; that played an important part in wanting to help others. So when I went off to school, I thought maybe I’d do speech therapy. But then I realized there are all these other disabilities and thought I’d study special education. That worked well for me.”
After getting his bachelors (Clarion State) and masters in education (Penn State) interspersed with teaching jobs, Bill took a position with Pennsylvania’s department of mental retardation.
“My job was to travel throughout Pennsylvania setting up infant and toddler programs with federal grant money. I worked with parent groups to get them interested in setting up these programs, and that’s what got me hooked. Then I was offered a job with PA Department of Education, in the early 1970s. It was a historic time in the state; kids with physical disabilities or who were not toilet trained could be turned away by superintendents, until a lawsuit succeeded in gaining the right to education for all children.
“I was hired to deal with the Southeastern region. My job was to go into schools and tell the superintendents that they had to educate all kids… ‘and I’m here to help you do it. Let’s hire a teacher, some classroom assistants’… it was not too well accepted by some supers or school boards or business managers.
“Then the Chester County IU hired me to deal with a dilemma. They had 250 kids who were living in a state institution, whom they were charged with educating. They did have some unusual behaviors, but we would try to teach them via very basic incentives.” It wasn’t an enlightened educational environment, Bill says; “I felt for the kids, I felt for the parents, but I felt good that we were now getting these kids out in to the community. We set up classes at churches; the challenge was to then get these students into schools.
Fate intervened, Bill said, and “A board member approached me and said UCP of Delaware County had an opening. All UCP had at that time was a small school program [Crothers], but it was an approved private school, and it was getting some state funding. So that’s what got me started, and I’ve been here ever since.”
And what have you found at CADES?
“CADES is a great, great organization. We’ve got a good board of directors and a staff that thinks outside the box. The parents and those who need our services say ‘CADES is special because of the staff that we’ve got.’ I love our people here, and I love our parents who deal with this day in and day out. I feel so blessed to have been a part of it, I really do.”
“My goal is to become buff [laughs]. You’re not going to recognize me a year from now, I’m going to be so muscular. My doctor says ‘What are you going to do about your brain?’ I haven’t figured that out.”
At that point, Brian, an adult client, pops into Bill’s office to talk excitedly about his role in The Sound of Music, performed that day at CADES. As he rolls off down the hall, Bill says, “I’m going to miss that.”