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At 50, Al Sigl Community looks back, to future

Rochester Business Journal
August 17, 2012

It was with some reluctance that a group of human services organizations came together 50 years ago in what would become the Al Sigl Community of Agencies, anxiously joining in a structure that had not been attempted.

Now the partnership, in which the organizations share facilities and services while remaining independent, has become a model nationwide and has allowed each agency to grow while reducing expenses.
 
The non-profit Al Sigl Community is marking its 50th anniversary this year, having grown from one to six campuses and widened the range of services it offers to member agencies. Officials see more room for growth as the funding landscape shifts to encourage community-based services.
 
For the Al Sigl Community, the milestone is a chance to look back and to see how that history will enable the non-profit to succeed in the future.
 
The impetus for the Al Sigl Community came from the Community Chest, the organization that would become the United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. The group funded human services agencies and saw the possibility of cost reductions if the groups merged, recalled attorney Justin Vigdor, a partner at Boylan Code LLP and a founder of Al Sigl Community. 
 
The plan evolved instead to produce an agency that could house and support the member agencies, and it formed in 1962 as the Monroe County Center for Rehabilitation Agencies. The name changed to the Al Sigl Center when Al Sigl, a well-respected newspaper and radio personality in Rochester, died and left $35,000 to the agency.
 
Though there was some initial reluctance among the agencies involved, the benefits were immediate once the center was formed, Vigdor said.
 
"These agencies were all located in scattered facilities around the city, some of which were dilapidated and had inadequate space," he said. "Now with Al Sigl Center they could be in a building with adequate space and controlled rent. They could also share other special services like a gym and therapeutic pool."
 
When the center opened in 1968 there were close to 1,300 people receiving services from the seven member agencies, said Daniel Meyers, president of the Al Sigl Community. Today there are more than 60,000 clients, and with affiliated agencies that number stretches.
 
"When we started 50 years ago, there was no blueprint, no model for what you do to create a collaborative solution to the space needs of individual, independent human service organizations, all of which are serving folks with one or multiple disabilities," Meyers said. 
 
The organization now has six member agencies-CP Rochester, Epilepsy Foundation of Rochester-Syracuse-Binghamton, Medical Motor Service, National Multiple Sclerosis Society (Upstate New York Chapter), Rochester Hearing & Speech Center and Rochester Rehabilitation. It also has affiliates and partnerships.
 
Looking ahead
 
Now is a time of great change and great opportunity for human services agencies, Meyers said. Health care reform and the need to find more cost-effective medical delivery models are pushing agencies to be more resourceful, a situation that the Al Sigl Community of Agencies is well-positioned for, he said.
 
A great opportunity will be present in the shift toward a continuum of care, a range of medical services offered in different settings with the intention of keeping people in the community and out of residential placements.
 
"I think there will be opportunities for community-based services to participate in the continuum of care that health care reform is talking about," Meyers said. "Social service agencies in the community were typically not thought of as part of major health care initiatives, and I think we have the opportunity to be more part of that."
 
Meyers said he sees the Al Sigl Community continuing to break down the barriers that separate disabled people from full inclusion in the community.
 
The organization's board has been working for several years to move toward more inclusion in the community for clients, Chairman Donald Soule said.
 
"We took Johnny out of the attic 50 years ago, a time when people shied away from people in wheelchairs, and provided a great program space that allowed them to have a much higher quality of life," Soule said. "The next step now is further integration."
 
Soule said the organization will invest more in researching adaptive technologies that will give clients greater independence. He sees potential in wheelchair developments that give clients greater mobility and the ability to do things like kneel down.
 
"We'll have a lot more advocacy," he said. "In the next five years or so we'll create institutions for research and integrated community initiatives."
 
The Al Sigl Community has room to accommodate this growth, Soule said. There is land around the Elmwood Avenue campus that the agency can use.
 
Collaboration also will play a key role, Meyers said. Funding has gotten tighter in recent years, leading agencies to work together to share services and save money.
 
"Collaboration is a new language and new skill for many organizations, but it's part of our DNA," Meyers said. "We were born with it 50 years ago, and it's how we grew and evolved."
 
Collaboration for the short term or on individual projects is not very hard, Meyers noted, but to do so continually over decades has taken a special effort. That level of collaboration has built the trust among member agencies that is necessary to tackle the growing needs of the community and the challenges of funding.
 
"There are probably not any other examples in the country of that kind of deep collaboration, so in a sense we've gotten a running start on the new world," Meyers said. "As much as we've worked together, we still need to collaborate with more organizations and different kinds of organizations if we want to be part of new solutions for new needs and new times." 
 
A model
 
The Al Sigl Community model has been duplicated elsewhere, usually on a smaller scale, Meyers noted. 
 
"I know of three or four instances where people came to visit and went back to their home communities and tried to do something like what Al Sigl does," he said. "Times are requiring agencies to find new or better ways to do things, and the more you can provide infrastructure in a cost-efficient way, the more you can put into your programs and services."
 
Within the last 10 to 15 years, new tenant agencies have formed across the country, Meyers noted, with most started by funders to make their dollars stretch further. The Al Sigl Community, however, is unique in that is has allowed affiliates to remain independent.
 
"Some other organizations have used a collaborative model where all the agencies are rolled up into one super-agency," Meyers said. "Our agencies are stronger and more independent than they were 50 years ago, which is a good example of what you can do in strengthening agencies without interrupting their individual integrity."
 
Celebration
 
Officials chose to make the anniversary celebration a community event. The party takes place today at the Rochester Red Wings game with a slate of events to celebrate the agency's birthday.
 
"We had thought about having a 50th-anniversary celebration that was just for us, but then we thought about how our real message about people with disabilities is that they have more abilities and everyone ought to be included," Meyers said. "So we should go where the community goes for the summer."
 
The setting is appropriate because the Al Sigl Community of Agencies touches nearly everyone in the community in one way or another, Meyers said. 
 
"We hear constantly ... (that) everyone knows someone who was helped at Al Sigl by one of the member agencies," he said.
 
The Frontier Field celebration will include the national anthem sung by clients of member agencies, as well as a relay with members of the agencies and representatives from those agencies serving as honorary coaches, Meyers said. At the end of the game there will be cake on the field.
 
The game will benefit the the Al Sigl Community, Meyers said. After the game the team's jerseys from 50 years ago will be auctioned off with proceeds going to the center. 
 

8/17/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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