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FINDLAY - When she arrived at Blanchard Valley Center a year and a half ago, Connie Ament found what she describes as "a program with a bushel basket over it."
"There were lots of little lights of excellence and good things, but some of that had gotten lost in a lot of other issues," she said.
There were organizational, communication, and relationship issues. But looming over all of that was the agency's loss of state accreditation and questions about the very manner in which Blanchard Valley was protecting the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled individuals in its charge.
Early last year, the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities determined that Blanchard Valley had failed to correct the problems the state had identified in a review, many of which involved the methods used to manage clients' behavior.
In June, 2007, the state denied the program accreditation and ordered it to enlist an outside agency to help it get back into compliance.
Just two weeks earlier, then-Superintendent Bryan Miller had announced he was resigning. In a separation agreement approved by the county MRDD board, both sides agreed not to make disparaging remarks about the other, although it was clear Mr. Miller's departure after three difficult years at the agency was directly related to the problems cited by the state.
Enter Ms. Ament, a former superintendent of the Richland County MRDD Board who had worked as a deputy director for the state MRDD department. "They asked me to start as an interim superintendent to just kind of look at things and help them," she said. "I think my experience at the department was helpful because I knew what the expectations and standards were that we needed to meet."
She was hired full-time a few months later, and had Blanchard Valley enlist the help of its counterparts at Wood Lane in Wood County. It revised its policies on behavior supports, set up training, got employees involved in the process and, by September of this year, re-earned its state accreditation.
"Not only were we satisfied, but surprised, because there was just a ton of work to do," said Larry Grove, president of the Hancock County MRDD board. "They put in a lot of time, a lot of effort, and it paid off."
Blanchard Valley also has been awarded a three-year license for its adult residential program, which houses 32 adults in three group homes.
Production at its sheltered workshop, which employs about 120 adults, just became ISO certified, which holds its work to a standard of quality customers can count on.
Ms. Ament, a self-professed team-builder, said there is still a lot of work to do.
She is trying to make Blanchard Valley more "extroverted" both by bringing in community groups, such as students from the University of Findlay and Owens Community College students, and getting clients out into the community not only for employment but for service projects.
She has had to make some tough decisions, adding some employees in positions she felt were vital while laying off six workers this fall because of an ever-tightening budget.
She's asked for input from the staff on cost-savings measures and said she's committed to operating the agency with the two levies Hancock County voters have approved over the years: a 2.5-mill levy that will be up for renewal next year and a 1.9-mill levy that will follow in 2010. The levies provide about 63 percent of the agency's $11 million annual budget.
Ms. Ament said it was apparent that Blanchard Valley had not been responsive to clients' families or the staff.
She has tried to spend time talking - and listening - to concerns. "People didn't feel heard," she said. "People needed to know, whether it be a staff person, individual, or family member, that we cared, we were listening, we would follow up, communicate, and collaborate. It's that relationship piece that's really important."
State officials are pleased with the progress. "Essentially, they've addressed all the areas that need to be addressed," MRDD spokesman Aaron Powell said. "They're getting there and doing the right things, but it takes longer than a year to get back all the way on the right track."
He said it is highly unusual for a county MRDD board to be denied accreditation, and Hancock County was one of just two county boards that lost and regained accreditation in the past eight years.
Mr. Grove said he can feel the difference every time he walks through the door.
"[Ms. Ament] is the reason I stayed on for another term, and she is the reason the place is the way it is today," he said. "She can be firm yet understanding. She makes rational decisions, and in staffing decisions she doesn't take anything lightly. I think people realize her heart is with the consumers."
During a walk through the school and workshop last week, Ms. Ament stopped to talk with clients as they worked. She helped a toddler in the early intervention program mount a two-step staircase and go down the other side.
"It's just a wonderful place. There are just oodles of wonderful things happening," Ms. Ament said. "Its lights [have] been under a bushel basket, and it's nice to be able to pick the bushel basket up and let those lights shine for the people we serve and for the community."
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