Time to welcome change

timothy-eberly-389190-unsplashBy Marisa Geitner, president and C.E.O.

Thank you for your time and investment this year as we have explored ways to Welcome: Welcome conversation, welcome community and welcome change. We have shared our experiences with welcoming behavior being the pathway to healing. We’ve learned together how to shape responsibility – all while working to let go of bias, blame and shame, which only limits us. We’ve worked to demonstrate disciplined practices of respect like smiling and making eye contact with those we pass by. Together we have shared stories of the sustainable change that comes through diverse dialogue and how our outcomes shift when we welcome a spirit of excellence. Together we are beginning to confront our fear and overcome what limits our acceptance of others. We know that the sum of our contributions builds community, no one person or organization can do it alone.

So now it is time to put our learning to the test, it’s time to welcome change. As conversations move to deeper relationships we find ourselves more routinely enjoying common places. We’ve found common ground and now it is time to drive toward equal ground. Notice when people aren’t included. Address policies and language that hold people back or treat them as less than. Talk to lawmakers, friends and family members about what you’ve learned and about what change you’d like to see. Invite others to join the conversation, experience community and work for change.

Are you ready to take that next step? We’re working on a way for you to quickly measure your progress, so stay tuned. This is important work, and we aren’t done yet.



Welcoming the support of community


By Marisa Geitner, president and C.E.O.

In our society, we tend to glorify independence. We want to be able to say that we accomplished something all on our own, but the truth is we need each other. Very little is accomplished in pure isolation – and much is accomplished when we work together.

The work we do together here at Heritage Christian is big and meaningful. It is not work that is easily described through the success of projects and tasks, but the sum of our parts BUILDS COMMUNITY!

I recently came across these words from almost 20 years ago, words that still ring true:

“(The Greatest Generation, the men and women who came from the age of the Great Depression) weren’t perfect…. They all recognized that for all of the genius of the American political system and the framework of laws, beginning with the Constitution, the enduring strength of this immigrant nation has been its common ground, wide enough and strong enough to accommodate all races and beliefs. Now great fault lines run through that common ground. We have allowed it to be so fractured we are in danger of becoming less than the sum of our parts.   We have become the culture of cheap confrontation rather than resolution. … no piece of software, no server or search engine will offer you the irreplaceable rewards of a loving personal relationship, the strength and comfort of a real community of shared values and common dreams, the moral underpinning of a life lived well, whatever the financial scorecard.  Nor will this new technology by itself make you more racially tolerant – more sensitive to the plight of the disenfranchised – more courageous to take a firm stand for what you know is right. These are mere tools in your hands.” – Tom Brokaw, from a speech at Santa Fe College in 1999

How will we use our tools today? What will we build, and what foundation will we use?


How to overcome what divides us


By Marisa Geitner, President and C.E.O.

As we continue to explore together what it means to Welcome Community, I can’t help but call out a hurdle that we all need to confront and overcome. Fear.

When anger creeps in and shapes our attitudes it drives us to separate and circle with others who feed our opinions and disgust. It’s called common enemy intimacy and it is a counterfeit connection that breeds hate and divide; and yet at some point or another we all fall victim to it. Why?  Because we’re afraid of things we don’t understand and fear drives us to behave in ways that are isolating. That’s also why in these same times we feel the deepest sense of loneliness – we are afraid and are choosing to group with people who feed our fear. If that wasn’t enough, fear limits us to seek the very experiences that help us learn and move through fear… and absent those experiences we only perpetuate hurtful and segregating behavior. The divides grows. It’s a vicious circle that seems to be wrapping around us like a whirlpool these days. So what’s the step out of the vortex?  Get close!  That’s right. Get close!  Step in to the things you are struggling to understand. Find it within yourself to ask clarifying questions to those who express ideas or opinions that seem different than your own. Listen up and see how it shapes your opinion and more importantly your relationship. We can have differing views and still demonstrate respect. Let’s stop working so hard to avoid the very same people we need to be working the hardest to engage in the health of our vital community.

Recently I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Timothy Shriver, chair of Special Olympics International share his passion on what he terms the “Inclusion Revolution.” He renewed my spirit by reminding me that I am surrounded by those who are the best positioned to lead our country through this time of hate and separation. After all, who better than those who have some of the greatest experience with being excluded – those living with disabilities – to lead us. In the face of adversity and views different from their own they have shown courage and understanding. They continue to forge forward despite what Dr. Shriver calls “attitudes of mass destruction.” They not only continue to create spaces where all are welcomed, they are powerfully showing their contribution to the relationship of community. I am thankful to have such well-educated, dedicated guides to help me navigate this journey forward.

Welcome Community!


Welcoming a Spirit of Excellence

Spirit of Excellence

By Marisa Geitner, president and C.E.O.

This month we celebrate 34 years as an agency. In that time, we’ve grown from one home to serving more than 22,500 people a year – not just through homes and day programs but through programs like Springdale Farm, the Center for Human Services Education and Expressive Beginnings Child Care.

And at the heart of that growth is a core group of long-serving employees who have rarely been recognized with awards and recognitions. They’ve always been appreciated, though, and that’s why we’ve inducted them into the inaugural Spirit of Excellence class.

We worked closely with agency founders, and in particular with former HCS President Bob Pieters, to select this group, and they are all certainly worthy of our honor and our gratitude.  Bob and I shared the honor of recognizing the first class together this past week.

Allow me to introduce you to the first Spirit of Excellence class:

  • Jane Kitchenman served as a nurse for more than 20 years at Heritage Christian – and she still serves by modeling hospitality and compassion. Her strength – and her dedication to doing the right thing – made a difference here at HCS. In fact, Jane saved a man’s life by advocating for him in the hospital so that he had the right treatment for his heart valve. She’s still advocating and helping people’s hearts by inviting new nurses and other employees into her home. She shares her own experiences and encourages others to work hard at their careers.
  • More than 30 years ago, Bob Pieters and other parents who had children with developmental disabilities banded together, mortgaged their homes and started Heritage Christian so they could provide homes and first-rate care for their children and eventually, for thousands of others. During his time as president, the agency more than doubled in size and grew to support children and adults in Western New York across Wayne, Monroe, Erie and Niagara counties. Also under Bob’s leadership, the agency was inducted into the Compass program by the NYS Office for People With Developmental Disabilities. Compass identifies the agency as one of the state’s top service providers for people with special needs.
  • For the past 29 years, Ruth Benjamin has served as an RN at Heritage Christian Services where she leads the nursing team and dieticians as Director of Health Management & Research. And each of those years has mattered – because Ruth’s work matters greatly. In that time she has flown on an air ambulance with a man and his mother to the Mayo Clinic. They stayed at the clinic for 11 days and left with a treatment plan that provided another 2 ½ years to his lifespan. She has led the way on innovative projects like establishing an on-call nursing system, using QMARs to reduce the number of medication errors and creating a custom format for aging and the end of life for the Therap system.
  • Ron Little has always been great with numbers – but he is even better at seeing possibilities. As senior vice president of finance and agency advancement, Ron oversaw all aspects of agency-related finances and administrative support. When he started at Heritage Christian, the budget was around $10 million. He developed a financial team and controls to successfully manage growth from there to today’s budget of $81 million. Ron worked with the University of Buffalo and determined that low-income tax credits could be used for group homes and that Federal Home Loan Bank funds could also be used for people with developmental disabilities – and brought in close to $6.7 million in funding. He also played a key role in Heritage Gardens, an affordable housing development under construction now that will complement the PFLC campus.
  • Diane Sturmer has lived out our mission since she started here in direct support. Beginning in direct support and serving as residential manager and community bridge builder before helping to shape what is now our Faith and Community Inclusion team. Diane and her team started what is now the Heritage Hero 5K + Mile Stroll & Roll, and she helped start Heart of Dance with Nancy Craig. Diane has also been foundational in our continuity between the greater Buffalo and the greater Rochester area.  Beginning coffee house experiences years ago to help people develop new relationships and strengthen their faith.
  • Maureen Phillips first joined us as a member of our direct support staff and then later worked as a respite manager and a service coordinator before moving into her current role – a role that seems to be a perfect fit for her and her talents. Until the last few years, our agency had a long waiting list for people who wanted to join our residential program. With Maureen’s leadership, we now work with families to see what services we can offer them right away. Her care – and her dedication to excellence – also show in the way she supports people whose loved ones can’t help make life decisions. Maureen stands in the gap and guides people to the best answers. Sometimes her work is behind the scenes, but she isn’t afraid to walk on to the stage and fight alongside people for what they want and for what would make their lives better.
  • Nancy Dwyer joined the agency in 1986 as a social worker serving in that role all the way through the development of our Medicaid Service Coordination team. Throughout her time with Heritage, she grew to a role of director of clinical and community services, supervising a team of 30 clinicians plus overseeing community services, which included service coordination, guardianship and respite. Nancy is also highly regarded by our Family Advocates having helped to lead the group for many years. With the advocates she delivered awareness about families caring for a loved one with disabilities to lawmakers in their home districts, in Albany and in Washington, D.C. Nancy shaped our journey forward with a quote that has given us focus for years. She asked us to imagine 350 noses against the window glass waiting for an opportunity to get in to be supported by Heritage Christian Services.
  • Most people in the agency know Ann Meyer, director of Workforce and Talent Development – and Ann Meyer knows most people. Remembering people’s names is more than a party trick for Ann, though. It’s one of the many ways that she shows she cares about each employee and each person who chooses our services. She started here by working in direct support and quickly learned the importance of building and maintaining relationships. From there she served as a residential manager and now she works to ensure we hire and retain the most talented employees. She is committed to offering the right tools to people so they can do their jobs well. And she has influenced countless employees by mentoring and offering leadership advice.
  • Kathy Schlegel too began her career as direct support and served in roles throughout residential and QA prior to becoming the director of residential services. Kathy worked with the agency for more than three decades. She still holds the record as one of our longest-serving employees and one of the youngest to retire!  Kathy was such a big part of beginning and supporting our reunion weeks serving both regions.  Because of that deep well of experience, we’ve always relied on her sharp know-how and ability to get things done. With her leadership, HCS opened dozens of home during her tenure. Purchasing furniture and decorating the walls were never idle tasks for her. She knew she was helping to create a place that truly felt like home and she did it so well.
  • When you think of a person who makes a world of difference, you might think of Terry Demar. Her kindness and dedication shine in her work as a day program manager and in the trips she has made to serve in Guatemala. She has an open heart to serve and is always one of the first to respond to a call for help. Her servant heart stretches from serving people here at – Springdale Farm and at the Heritage Christian Stables – to serving people throughout the world. And always, her focus is on inclusion. Terry is equally committed to serving the people who choose our supports and to serving her co-workers. She offers advice and walks alongside new staff and helps them see the person they are supporting, not just the disability, and she even helps other departments by using her creativity and leadership to make thank you gifts and recognition gifts for agency events. Plus, Heritage Christian is such a part of her life that Terry often brings her own family members to serve with her at agency events.
  • Kris Garcia joined HCS in 1992 as a behavior specialist and then became director of behavior services. Later she took the position of director of quality assistance and has done an exceptional job in that role. Kris’ colleagues appreciate her professionalism, attention to detail and her heart for the mission. She is very thorough, not only with guiding her staff with investigations but also with supporting our workforce. All of that matters to the people who choose our services and all of that matters to the people who review our status in the Compass program. Thanks in great part to Kris’ work, we continue to be recognized as one of the top agencies in the state – and that’s something that helps our agency in many ways.
  • Julie Owen is a strong organizer and is always willing to take on new challenges. She is especially known for directing her drive and passion toward starting the agency’s respite program and helping to grow our day and residential services. Today she breaks new ground as director of customized supports. Julie’s colleagues recognize her as a thought leader. Many were especially inspired by her insightful and clear voice during her time in the online learning community with Carol Blessing and the Citizen Centered Leadership offered by Cornell University. When Julie shares her experience and expertise it’s suddenly easier to envision a world without barriers. We are thankful to Julie for joining our international ministries and serving at the retreat center in Guatemala. She serves quietly and gives generously and surely has been able to enrich thousands of lives across her career.
  • Joanne Case-Green wasn’t the first receptionist but is the most well-known in the first half of our agency’s existence. Joanne had a welcoming way about her when she answered the phone and greeted people at the front desk. She worked as more than a switchboard operator in the early days; she was and remains a friendly communicator who is easy-going and dependable. She has a knack for getting to know people and, in turn, people always feel comfortable talking to her. She was the first glimpse many people had of our Christian compassion during her time here, and she represented us well. Joanne has remained supportive of HCS in the years following her retirement and even volunteered at our thrift store – always welcoming, always smiling.

As with these inductees, future members will have significant tenure within the organization, demonstrated significant impact through their devote support.  These leaders will have served in multiple roles, been integral in the startup of programs and/or have demonstrated excellence within their specific domain.  These future inductees have been heavy contributors to a generation of leadership at Heritage Christian Services.

Please join me in celebrating these inaugural Spirit of Excellence inductees.





Welcoming diverse thinking


By Marisa Geitner, president and C.E.O.

As we continue to explore ways to better share common places and welcome one another in the relationship of community, let’s unpack where we really are with welcoming diverse experience and thinking.

When someone shares an opinion that appears different from our own, do we lean in and listen?  Do we ask questions to understand their perspective or do we check them off the list and begin conversation with someone else?  When we need to tackle a tough problem or a new community issue do we reach out broadly and welcome others in or do we retreat to pal with those who we know “see it our way?”

With a hurdle to clear far too often we are quick to implement ideas and aim to fix, therefore it’s natural that we tend to group with others who have similar tendencies and views.  What feels natural here, however, has been proven to not yield strong results.  Rather, learning and sustainable change comes through a diverse dialogue of exploring and clarifying the challenge; sharing broad and different ideas to approach the matter; good time in development of next steps and then implementation.  Each piece of the process is so very important. With others around the table who have diverse gifts, the challenge gets clearer and the way forward is productive and thoughtful.

Looking at respect

Marisa blog

By Marisa Geitner, president and C.E.O.

Are you feeling the reason for the season — are you feeling the promise and renewal as we move into the spring season? Are you eager to do something following the blessing and rejuvenation of Easter?  Make change or start anew? As Mahatma Gandhi once said, are you ready to “be the change that you wish to see in the world”? Don’t lose momentum, the first step might be much closer than you think.

At Heritage Christian, one of the ways we demonstrate our Christian compassion, a corporate value, is by smiling and making eye contact.  It is a seemingly simple discipline that if we aren’t careful in today’s day, might just become a lost art. We believe that our commitment to connecting sets us apart and it starts by showing our respect for others by looking them in the eye.

If given time to reflect, I think we can all agree on the power of connection that comes through eye contact.  Whether simply a passing connection to demonstrate our respect and care for another or looking deeply into someone’s eyes as a window into their soul, we rely on eye contact to connect and communicate on a conscious and an unconscious level.  Eyes tell us so much. They show us interest, direction, focus and emotion. Each of us is prepared differently to make eye contact, and that’s ok too! The purpose is to show respect and interest and welcome others. Begin by showing that in whatever way is most comfortable to you.

Today I ask that you take that step in being the change you’d like to see, to build a better relationship of community and to respect and connect with others.  As you pass by someone, smile and make eye contact. When you pay for your groceries, look into the eyes of the cashier, smile and say thank you. When you share dinner with your friends or family tonight, make a point to share eye to eye contact.  Let this simple gesture open you up to others. Let them see your willingness to acknowledge, respect and get to know them. You won’t be disappointed and you will be surprised to see how natural it is to respond to what you see in their eyes. The opportunity for change opens up from there!