(Alan Dooley photo)
A milestone for one organization may have recently gone unnoticed by most in Monroe County. But to the countless lives of those it has touched over the years, it most certainly has not.
Human Support Services, located at 988 N. Market Street in Waterloo, marked its 40th anniversary on Feb. 28.
Some probably drive past the facility with little awareness of what goes on there.
“More than a few people think we are a grade school, and the big building on the end is the gymnasium,” HSS Executive Director Robert Cole told the Republic-Times with a chuckle.
But HSS, as it is known to the 70 employees and hundreds of people who avail themselves of its services, is neither a grade school nor a host of other misconceptions. The non-profit organization, founded in 1973, offers comprehensive services to county residents with mental health and developmental disabilities, plus those with substance abuse problems.
HSS has come a long way, both in terms of facilities and programs. It first resided in a building longtime Waterloo residents called the Old Milk Company Building. In 1989, offices that were scattered around the area came together at the present location.
This building was formerly the Knights of Columbus Hall.
“In fact, I attended my prom right here,” said Deb West, who manages compliance and resident programs at HSS.
Since then, several more connected structures have been added.
Today, the busy organization provides services in three primary areas.
Cole said one focus is outpatient behavioral health care. In this capacity, HSS provides care for those with developmental and mental challenges.
“Our support to people with substance abuse problems, like alcohol and drug problems, as well as help for people convicted of DUI offenses, is included in this work,” Cole added.
West, who makes sure HSS meets the matrix of federal and state laws that govern such work, next told about the program to provide housing to adults with disabilities.
“We have nine apartment buildings comprising 60 apartments,” she said. “Some are staffed 24 hours a day for persons who need continuous help. Others are staffed part of each day for people with better abilities. We are currently constructing two, four-person group homes for others who might be better served in that setting than in an apartment.”
West said about half of the HSS staff – 35 people – work in these living facilities.
“Living costs for residents are based on a percentage of their incomes,” she said. “They earn some money and their rent is calculated at 30 percent of that amount.”
Cole said the third service area is the supportive employment program.
“This is a day program in which people with disabilities are employed in work they can carry out. Their tasks are measured to match their individual capabilities,” he said. “We get work – real, productive work – from a number of firms in the region. The people working in our program earn a real paycheck. Much of the work is what can be best termed as piece work and includes light repetitive labor, or packaging.”
Cole explained that the work day is broken into periods, like school.
“The workers move between jobs, so they don’t get bored, and one period is dedicated to socialization programs such as singing, or to learning life skills such as cooking and hygiene to help the people become more self-reliant,” he said.
HSS operates on an approximately $5 million annual budget, Cole said.
“We are blessed to have strong local financial support,” he stressed.
While 70 to 75 percent of HSS funding comes from Medicaid and state grants, Cole said local funding from groups like United Way and the Monroe County Mental Health Board is critical.
The annual Knights of Columbus Tootsie Roll Drive alone nets some $4,500 a year for HSS.
“The local support gives us a great deal more flexibility to meet needs the larger programs might not anticipate or for individual needs that otherwise might fall through the cracks,” Cole said.
With 40 years of service behind HSS, what are some future challenges?
“We simply do not have a large number of affordable residences that can adequately house people with developmental disabilities,” West said.
Cole added that two challenges ahead include state efforts to push services HSS offers into networks that may or may not be locally controlled.
“Sometimes that might mean we get a lower level or quality of services than where they are headquartered,” he explained.
The emerging Affordable Care Act may also have unforeseen impacts, Cole added.
But if the past 40 years are any barometer, HSS appears flexible and skilled enough to meet these and other future needs and challenges.
A walk through the facility is enlightening. People being served are happy and fully involved. Staff members are cheerful, competent and similarly directly engaged.
The name is correct: humans are being supported and served — and it is being done well.