When Mark Fuller walked into the City Council meeting more than a decade ago, he was ready to get the approval needed for a group home near Edgerton Park and move on with the project.
He expected an easy meeting, but what the president of DePaul Community Services Inc. found in the chambers frightened him. The spectator section was packed with more than 350 people waiting for the meeting to start.
"I saw that and my heart sank," Fuller says. "We were sixth on the agenda, and it turned out the second item was a nude juice bar on Dewey Avenue. Well, people didn't like that idea and turned out to speak against it."
It took until midnight for DePaul's agenda item to come up, but when it did, two people spoke in favor and one council member commended the organization for working closely with the neighborhood to gain support.
The meeting occurred at a turning point for group homes and for DePaul as an organization. DePaul's residence projects were no longer met by neighbors with fear and skepticism; instead they were embraced as vital parts of neighborhoods. With this acceptance, DePaul could grow without opposition to meet the changing needs of its clients.
"I think that's the biggest switch in my career," Fuller says. "In the '80s and '90s, all of the group homes faced opposition. It was the old NIMBY-not in my backyard. Now it's been proven that group homes are good neighbors because we do nice projects that fit in well with neighborhoods and try to fit in with that area."
DePaul's connection with the neighbors was so complete that when an identical facility was built in Buffalo, some people from the Edgerton Park area went there to talk to police and neighbors about how beneficial DePaul had been.
"We were actually welcomed into Buffalo because of the great feedback from that facility," Fuller says. "And the delis and local businesses love us. We even have the local fire department show up at Christmas to give out gifts to the residents."
Riding this new wave of acceptance, DePaul has expanded locally and opened services in North Carolina. From its small beginnings the organization has grown to nearly 1,800 employees and serves 5,000 individuals each year.
This year it opened one if its largest projects, a $35 million multiuse residential facility in the city's Bulls Head neighborhood.
Path to DePaul
Fuller started working for a Fortune 500 company in Batavia before he decided he did not like major corporate life. His mother was a nurse and he had always liked the thought of going into health care, so he started work at Genesee County Mental Health in Batavia in the mid-1970s.
From there he moved on to DePaul at a time when it was a small outpatient clinic, with 22 staff members and a payroll of $440,000. At a time when the idea of institutionalizing people with disabilities was losing steam, Fuller came with ideas for expanding the organization to meet the changing needs of its patients.
"A psychiatrist I had worked for in Batavia told me to get into community residences," Fuller says. "This was the start of the de-institutionalization movement in the late '70s and early '80s. We got into that business, and everything expanded from there."
Over the years DePaul continued to grow and diversify the kinds of residential settings it offered and the patients it would serve. A large part of this was necessity, Fuller notes, as patients were moved out of institutional settings and into the community.
"When I started there were probably 2,000 people at Rochester Psychiatric Center, and today there are maybe 225," Fuller says. "So we saw a big shift in terms of the severity of the disabilities of the clients we served. Today we serve people who are much more disabled than we started, and the needs are growing."
Medical advances have brought new patients as well, Fuller says. The organization's autism program grew as more children were diagnosed, and the increasing national attention to the disorder has brought more people seeking services.
DePaul also has prevention services for addiction and gambling, talking to school-age children about the problems of drugs and alcohol. The organization is the largest provider of mental health housing in the state with settings ranging from community residences to single-room occupancy to apartments.
Around the time Gov. George Pataki was elected, Fuller decided it would be best to diversify the organization and led a move to establish its presence in North Carolina.
"I decided we needed to diversify and not have all our eggs in one basket, so that led our entry into North Carolina," Fuller says. "We now have 13 senior living facilities there."
There are some difficulties in dealing with two different regulating bodies and providing consistent service throughout the entire system, but Fuller says the endeavor has been great for the organization. Today there are 1,042 total beds in North Carolina and close to 650 employees, nearly one-third of the entire organization.
It was Fuller's ability to look forward and anticipate the needs of the organization's clients that allowed it to grow as it has, says Timothy Culhane, DePaul chairman.
"The organization is a very forward-thinking one, and Mark is always looking into what we can get into next," Culhane says. "He's not afraid to branch out and do something different, and not afraid of failure."
Much of the growth in the last decade locally and in North Carolina has come in the senior market, but the future will be in affordable living environments, Fuller says. This housing is not specialized for one disability but can accommodate mentally ill people, veterans, low-income people or those with addictions.
These projects also bring a measure of revitalization to the city, as DePaul typically picks areas with older buildings that are then renovated and retrofitted for housing. As president, Fuller has taken an active role in these development projects, working closely with banks to secure funding and with architects.
"We renovate old factories or go into marginal areas and provide quality facilities in those kinds of areas," Fuller says. "It's been really fun in the last couple of years because we're redeveloping property and creating jobs through construction.
"Plus housing is seen as a cornerstone for the people we serve, whether it's senior care or mental health or mental retardation. If you don't have housing, the other treatment kind of falls apart."
Bulls Head project
A direct example of the trend toward more inclusive housing is on West Main Street in the Bulls Head neighborhood.
Bullshead Commons, a $35 million project, took five years to complete and opened in January. It has three buildings-a 75-bed single-room occupancy facility, a 14-bed treatment apartment building and one with 24 beds for affordable housing.
Throughout his career, Fuller has had an affinity for the neighborhood. When he started at DePaul the organization had one facility, located in the former school of Sts. Peter and Paul Church.
As Fuller saw the area continuing to struggle, he felt it was the perfect time to re-establish a strong presence there.
"We had the property and saw some of the area deteriorating, so I really felt it was important to get back into the city," he says. "It just sort of came to me and I envisioned it as a perfect fit for the city, and the city was very involved working with us."
As with the Edgerton project before it, DePaul worked closely with neighborhood associations to solicit advice and give them a sense of familiarity with the complex. This month the organization held an open house so nearby business owners and community members could see the result.
"Not everyone was happy with the treatment facility that DePaul had here before, but now people are living and shopping in this area instead of moving in and out," says Melissa O'Geen, program director for the residence. "We even worked with the neighborhood association and gave them input on the naming of the project."
The project reflects Fuller's attention to detail. Every aspect of the complex was constructed with residents' needs and comfort in mind, from the living wall of plants in a lounge in the lobby to the multipurpose room where they can learn to cook in the kitchen and have movie nights in a small theater.
"You can tell he doesn't cut corners in anything he does," Culhane says. "When he decides to do something, he's all-in. If there's a certain color that he finds out is better or more comforting to clients, he'll pick it."
Future for DePaul
With the North Carolina residences and Fuller's work in Albany advocating on policy issues, he is on the road nearly as much as he is at his LeRoy home or the organization's headquarters in Gates.
As he finds balance at home-spending his free time with his family and sometimes golfing-Fuller also is kept busy with other duties. He sits on the governor's Mental Health Services Council and is president for the Association for Community Living, a trade association that DePaul belongs to, so much of his time is spent setting overall direction for the agency and the field as a whole.
"We need to make sure that people are looking after quality at all levels of care, that people are making sure the money is well-spent and properly spent," Fuller says. "Right now money is such a huge issue, and how much gets spent and whether we have to make cuts."
In Albany there is an ongoing discussion of balancing the state workforce and the private sector in work with residential settings, and DePaul is seen as cost-effective compared with state institutions, Fuller says. That the organization can run so efficiently has allowed him to keep a measure of optimism even in difficult financial times.
"I think we're actually in a better position than many others because people recognize that we have to care for the disabled and people are getting older and we have to take care of the seniors," Fuller says. "One thing I've focused on my whole career is quality, and people recognize that they will pay for quality at a reasonable cost. I think that has served DePaul well."
Because of this advantage, DePaul has weathered the recession better than many of its peers. Its funding remained flat over the last two years while others' went down, and the organization was able to avoid staff cuts.
Fiscal stability also brought openings for organizational growth, Fuller notes. In January, DePaul purchased two adult assisted-living facilities in North Carolina.
"In some ways the bad economy has brought opportunities for us because we're cost-effective operators," Fuller says. "We can take on projects that maybe other people couldn't."
It is difficult to say if this will lead to more funding for DePaul, as the state's finances and future budgets are difficult to predict, but Fuller says signs are hopeful. The organization was selected for one of two homes in the state for treatment of Prader-Willi syndrome, a congenital disease.
As DePaul has grown-and continues to grow-some have suggested the organization stay the course with the programs and services it already offers, Culhane says. But Fuller has never heeded this advice or fixed his gaze anywhere but forward, he adds.
"He's never done," Culhane says. "A lot of people say this is a well-oiled machine and he should let it run, but Mark never stops looking for more we can do."
- Position: President, DePaul Community Services Inc.
- Age: 58
- Education: AAS, SUNY College at Alfred, 1972; BBA, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1976; MBA in management and finance, RIT, 1977
- Family: Wife Michelle; daughter Francesca; son Zachary
- Residence: LeRoy, Genesee County
- Activities: Golf, spending time with his family
- Quote: "I think we're actually in a better position than many others because people recognize that we have to care for the disabled and people are getting older and we have to take care of the seniors. One thing I've focused on my whole career is quality, and people recognize that they will pay for quality at a reasonable cost. I think that has served DePaul well."
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