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Lunch with Mimi: Becky Aungst leads Skills of Central Pennsylvania

on December 31, 2019 12:10 PM

Celebrating its 60th anniversary, Skills of Central Pennsylvania is a nonprofit serving 17 counties throughout the region. Becky Aungst, president and CEO of Skills of Central Pennsylvania, oversees the organization’s wide variety of services that support individuals with behavioral health, intellectual, or development challenges. The organization employs more than 1,100 staff in a variety of professional, clinical, and direct support roles.

Originally from Altoona, Aungst earned a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation education from Penn State. Aungst began her career working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as a direct support professional and case manager in Blair County.

After spending four years in West Virginia supervising and developing residential programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, she moved back to Altoona in 1988 to work for Skills of Central Pennsylvania as a residential manager, later becoming the director of residential services in Blair County. Nine years later, she was promoted to vice president of operations in Blair County. In 2014, Aungst was assigned the role of chief operations officer before becoming the CEO and president in 2016.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Aungst at The Field Burger & Tap to discuss the services and programs that Skills provides as well as the challenges the organization faces, from recruitment of employees to the need to advocate for funding.


Mimi: You run an amazing operation. When I read that you have 1,100 employees, it struck me that I had no idea how big your operation is. Tell us the major components.

Becky: The biggest portion of our services are working with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We have group homes, day programs, and vocational training programs or workshops where people can get employment experience. We contract with businesses in the community to provide work that needs to be done. We also offer employment services where we provide support for people in competitive community employment.

Mimi: To me, it seems to be a pretty well-kept secret.

Becky: A lot of people say that about Skills. We recently hired a director of marketing and communication. He's a Penn State graduate and came to us  from Florida and he is doing a wonderful job getting the word out about successes at Skills. The goal will be for him to get that best-kept secret out into the communities where we work, operate, and even beyond that, so that we can expand our services geographically.

Mimi: Is this from young people up or is it more for adults?

Becky: It’s more for adults. Our employment services are a big component of what we do for individuals with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. We do a career assessment to understand their interests and we try to find a job that matches those interests. And if we find employers in the community who hire people with  disabilities, we work with that employer. We provide a job coach that goes into that location, learns the job, and supports that person on the job until that person really doesn’t need them there every day.

One of the biggest initiatives in Pennsylvania right now is to become an “employment first” state. The state’s Office of Developmental Programs wants people with intellectual and developmental disabilities out in the community getting jobs. Even if it’s a part-time job or something a few hours a week that they’d like to do, the goal is that they’re paid competitively for their work.

Mimi: It's an opportune time because there's such a shortage of the workforce at the entry level.

Becky: Yes it is, but there are some challenges. Transportation is a big stumbling block for folks who are trying to find jobs in the community. Now, if there's somebody that lives in one of our group homes, our group home staff can make sure they get to and from work. If somebody lives at home or in their own apartment or the hours of the job are unusual or there is no bus transportation, we run into problems with transportation. Sometimes our staff can help with transportation, but we can't do that indefinitely since we are  trying to help people be independent in their community.

Mimi: Let's talk a little bit about where the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the politicians stand in support for organizations like yours. How much do you get from the state government?

Becky: Right now, 95 percent of our revenue is primarily funding from the Office of Developmental Programs and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. There is some mental health funding as well as drug and alcohol funding. In addition, we also receive revenue from the people who live in our group homes; a portion of their Social Security benefits is used to pay for their room and board. We also receive some funding from contracts with local school districts.

Mimi: And so, I presume they [Office of Developmental Programs] have an enforcement arm.

Becky: Yes, they do. They also have a licensing arm. Their licensing staff comes and licenses all of our group homes, day programs, vocational training programs, and Lifesharing homes. Lifesharing is another component of residential services that we offer. This is where a person can have a choice to live with a family. Sometimes it can be a Skills employee that they've developed a relationship with, a family member, or a kind-hearted family in the local community. This situation is a contracted agreement where the Lifesharing family receives a monthly stipend for the support they provide.  

Lifesharing also gives people with disabilities another choice if they don't want to live in a group home, or maybe they've lived in a group home and now want something different. Lifesharing is a program that we're really trying to build and get people more involved in. The challenge is recruiting families or people who would be interested in doing it because it's a commitment to have someone living with you 24/7. The Office of Developmental Programs also funds the Lifesharing program.

Mimi: So, let's look back a little bit. This whole thing started in Bellefonte. Can you tell us a little bit about that? How did it grow to be so regional? How many counties do you cover now?

Becky: We cover 17 counties. We started in Bellefonte in 1960 as a small day program to provide people with opportunities to have paid work, gain social skills, and become more independent in the community. There were only about 13 people in this program. It was families that had younger adults with developmental disabilities who wanted them to have an opportunity to do something during the day. Don Storch was one of the founders of Skills.

Mimi: I'd like to talk about the evolution of cooperative living. I believe Skills was in the early part of that happening for this segment of the population. Until some of these home experiments worked, they were put in an institution that's quite separated from the rest of the world.

Becky: You're right about the institutionalization. In earlier days, parents would go to their physician if they had a child with a disability, and most physicians in those days encouraged institutionalization. Many of them were state institutions. Providers like Skills eventually opened group homes over the years and started bringing people out of these state centers into the community, realizing that many people could live in the community as adults. Today, we see people blossom as a result of community living. We see the people we support getting jobs, going out into the community for recreation, volunteering  in their communities, and developing relationships. During the day, we see them going out to the movies, arts festivals, football games, and concerts, just like everybody else participates in their community.

But some people don't want to be in a group home. Some people's families want to keep them home because they either can't support them, there are some special needs, or they don't have the time to take them out and do things with them as much. So, now there is a program called In-Home Community Supports. We have staff who go into the homes and work with people on independent living skills, especially if they live in their own apartment. If they live with their parents, a lot of times our staff will take them out into the community and have them do things that they'd like to do. Sometimes they go to a doctor's appointment, go out for lunch, go to the bank, or do their errands with them. So, that's another alternative.

In the future, they're starting to talk a lot more about group homes with technology. They're calling them smart homes, where you can have technology there that if a person is fairly independent and maybe needs some help, they can use technology like an Alexa. It could be set up to prompt them when to take their medications, when it’s time for them to take their bath, and what to cook or how to cook. There's already places across the state doing this.

Mimi: Do they try to put together people who have an affinity or something that brings them together?

Becky: When we have an opening for somebody to come into a home, we try to match the people up with some of their likes so that they will hopefully have a good opportunity to get along. We look at ages and genders, trying to make sure that people are compatible with each other.

We also look at our staff and their compatibility with the people they're going to support. We use a process called “matching profiles” to do this. If you are somebody who likes the outdoors, enjoys ballgames, we have a house with three adults who love to be on the go and sports, it'd be a perfect match to work in that house. So, we do try to do those things. The challenge of finding staff these days makes it a little harder at times.

Mimi: How difficult is the placement of jobs in the scheme of things?

Becky: We have a number of local  businesses that employ people with developmental disabilities. We have people working at Cracker Barrel and Giant Eagle grocery stores. We have people working in libraries and at the Department of Transportation. The Altoona Mirror has had people work in their graphics department. So, we do have a pretty wide variety of employers that will work with us, but I think there are more out there that we need to tap into. So, we're trying to advertise that service.

Mimi: Everybody deserves a life.

Becky: They do. One of the things we say to employers is that when you hire somebody with a developmental disability, you're getting a really good employee because these are people who take a big sense of pride when they're making a paycheck. They're dedicated and happy to be a part of the business.

Mimi: What's your biggest challenge?

Becky: Right now, the biggest challenge is the ongoing effort to recruit, hire, and retain staff, particularly direct-support professionals who work directly with the people in our services. I think the wages are much more competitive than they used to be, but the problem is, it's a tough job and not a lot of people in this day and age want to work supporting and providing care to other people.

With the upswing in employment and competitiveness of other areas of employment, recruitment has become a real challenge. Many other providers are also competing for the same employees as Skills.

Mimi: Well, God bless you for doing as much as you do. And the real challenge is figuring out how you can do more of it.

Becky: The second [biggest challenge] is the ongoing need to always be advocating for the rights of the people that we support, but also advocating with the Office of Developmental Programs. There are many things that the state is mandating providers to do, which may require additional staff; however, there are not usually any new dollars to support these initiatives. The state shouldn’t expect providers to keep living off of the same funding to pay our staff a competitive wage and provide quality services.  

We have four vocational training facilities in in Lewistown, Huntington, Altoona, and State College. We also have nine adult training facilities, which are day programs. These are for people who are not ready to be employed yet but need more help with social skills. They do volunteer work and we work with them on other skills. And there's a shift going on now from the state's perspective of supporting people with disabilities. The shift is not just getting them jobs in the community, but the state is now mandating providers to get all of the people out of those programs, including the shops where they're working, and get them in the community 25 percent of their time with the goal of gaining employment. Many people in the day services enjoy being in the community, but not as frequent as 25 percent of their time.

Well, some of that is very good, but some people that we support in those programs do not want to be out there that often. And the people who work in the shops don't want to leave the work they're doing; they want their paycheck.

Mimi: So, what's the solution to that?

Becky: Well, this is where the legislators come in. We've met with legislators. We belong to the provider organization called RCPA, which stands for Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association, and they are now suing the Office of Developmental Programs on behalf of providers because they're lowering the rates for time that people are in the programs and increasing the rates more toward when they are in the community. You have people who don't really want to go out all the time. Some people can't. They are accustomed to their routine and like being with all of their friends they have made over the years. The state does allow for variances for people, but you have to keep documenting all kinds of reasons, what you tried, why they don't want to go out, and so forth.

Mimi: How do you see a solution to this?

Becky: We've had families writing letters to the legislators. We've had legislators meet with us and talk with us. Some of our legislators locally have supported Skills in their efforts to preserve people’s choice.. [The state is] mandating that we get people out in the community. “Community participation” is the new buzz [phrase]. There's a lot of good behind what the state wants to do, but it's how they're approaching it. Picking a random 25 percent of time without thinking about the individual’s choice. On the other hand, the state stands behind the philosophy of people having choice and an “everyday life.”

Mimi: What are you going to do for your 60th anniversary?

Becky: We're so large and spread out in 17 counties. In October, we're going to have a dinner at The Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center. We're in the planning stages to celebrate our services and the people who have helped us over the years. We also recognize that a lot of our employees work and have to be in group homes, so they can't all be at this dinner. In each region, we're working to plan events for employees in those areas.

This month (January), our director of marketing and communications is going to start putting some things out through the media through advertising to publicize things we've done over the last 60 years. We're going to try to do something almost every month for the whole year.

Mimi: So, what's your long-term goal?

Becky: I want to continue to increase and diversify the types of services we provide at Skills. We have a lot of talent in-house and we have the ability to do that, but we've been so focused on trying to get back in line with all these new mandates that we haven’t been able to focus as much on growth.

Mimi: Do you have any parting words for our readers?

Becky: I just want to say that I've been very blessed to be a part of this career field. I've been at Skills for 31 years, so I've grown up professionally with this organization. Skills has given me a unique opportunity to have a number of management and administrative roles over 31 years. What I've learned over all these years is that it is really about giving the people we support every opportunity to be successful, feel safe, and be respected. It’s about being kind to one another. My goal is that I want Skills to be the premier employer and continue to provide high-quality services. Regarding our employees, I want them to be proud to be part of the Skills team.

Mimi: I wish you the best. You’ve got the right attitude and it should happen.

Becky: Thank you.


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