Program director honored for 40 years of service

By Tammy Keith Published October 10, 2017 at 2:01 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Kelvin Green

Barbara Spradlin started working at Independent Living Services in Conway 40 years ago. She was the fifth employee hired by the first director, Peggy Schneider, who retired in 2000. Today, there are 400 employees, said Elissa Douglas, executive director of Independent Living Services. She praised Spradlin for her compassion and expertise in working with individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

When Barbara Spradlin talks about her 40-year career at Independent Living Services in Conway, she is likely to do two things — laugh and cry.

“Haven’t I been blessed?” she asked.

She is sitting at her desk, and on one corner is a huge vase of flowers. Next to it on a pedestal is a multicolored piece of art glass, which has a placard inscribed with appreciation for her four decades of dedicated service.

Peggy Schneider, the first director of the nonprofit program, helped present the award to Spradlin at the Sept. 26 board meeting. Schneider hired Spradlin in 1977 as the fifth employee of Independent Living Services.

Today, there are 400 employees.

The program opened in 1970 to serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It took its first clients in 1971, eight men from what was then called the Conway Children’s Colony, now the Conway Human Development Center.

Independent Living Services had just opened a group home for women when Spradlin saw a front-page newspaper article about it and called Schneider.

“Little did I know what a tremendous woman she was and visionary,” Spradlin said.

Spradlin, a native of Illinois, had recently moved to Faulkner County with her then-husband, who had relatives in the state. Spradlin had worked in Illinois with people with developmental disabilities, a passion she found early on.

“I was 12 years old when I had decided what I wanted to do,” Spradlin said. She had a cousin with special needs.

“I guess it just opened my eyes to that. She must have been the catalyst,” Spradlin said.

Schneider said Spradlin was invaluable to the growth of ILS, which now provides services to more than 250 people. A group home for women had opened, but there was little funding available.

“I desperately needed somebody to help me quick. I asked for a program director, so [a state agency] gave me just a little bit of money. … And Barbara came along, and she had worked at an institution in Illinois, and she knew so much about serving people with disabilities,” Schneider said.

“We both had the same idea — to see them have a chance to get out and excel in the communities,” she said. “Our dream was the same.”

Spradlin is a program director and shares the responsibility of overseeing three group homes, three apartment complexes and community-based services. Independent Living Services had the first group home in the state.

“We were forging paths,” she said.

Spradlin recalled that she and Schneider toured human-development centers in the state to identify people who could benefit from services that Independent Living Services offered.

Schneider, who retired in 2000, said Spradlin has continued their vision to help those individuals succeed.

Referred to as consumers, individuals can receive day services, which include art, music, home economics and computer classes. ILS also provides occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy to consumers.

The organization has its own paper-shredding business, Profiles Productions, for which the consumers work, and many of them work part time in the community with support from ILS. It provides transportation for about 250 people to work, ballgames, doctor’s appointments and more.

Individuals have to be 18 to participate in the day program, and there are some in-home services for children who live with their parents.

In addition to being a program director, Spradlin has served as assistant director.

“I never aspired to be executive director. I think this is what I’m good at, so this is how I can serve the agency best,” she said.

Executive Director Elissa Douglas agreed.

“She’s just really great; she does a good job training our new case managers. She likes to teach them ‘the ILS way,’” Douglas said of Spradlin.

“She has worked with some of the same families and same consumers for 40 years to provide that continuum of care. She puts consumers first. She has a way with consumers, with families. If [families are] upset, she can console them. You have a loved one who’s moving into a group home; that may be the first time they haven’t lived at home. She reassures them,” Douglas said.

Spradlin said her responsibilities are varied, and no two days are alike.

“I assist in the management of my staff; I try to be a very good leader,” she said.

She fills out applications for services and is constantly reading to keep up with new federal regulations. Then there are the families.

“That’s what I’m best at,” she said, dropping her voice to almost a whisper because she doesn’t like to brag on herself.

“One of my most important jobs is to guide families through the steps to a more fulfilling life for their loved one, and I help guide them toward independence,” she said.

“People call and say, ‘My brother is living with my mother and has all his life, and now she’s unable to care for him, and I don’t know what to do,’” Spradlin said.

She explains what ILS offers — residential and group homes, in-home support, enrichment classes, as well as social activities, such as dances.

“They tell me stories,” Spradlin said, tears coming to her eyes, “and through that, we take the steps that are needed. There is no handbook for ‘What am I supposed to do if my brother needs services?’ I want them to think they should call me.”

She invites families to come into her office and get comfortable on the oversized couch or upholstered chairs.

Spradlin said that one day last week, a family came to see her and brought their 21-year-old son, who needed services.

“It was fun. … It was so much fun because of the father’s and son’s wonderful relationship,” she said.

“As we all do when we have to hand a child over to a university, or a marriage — anytime they’re separating from us — many families have that feeling with ILS. I have heard family members say this is like going to college; this is your opportunity.

“It’s a big, big deal. Accomplishments mean so much more to the families of individuals with intellectual disabilities.”

She said a young man who had a part-time job “graduated” from group living to an ILS apartment, and the staff gave him a housewarming.

Spradlin said the man’s father had shared his testimony at church that morning because he was so proud of his son.

“He said, ‘I had always been told he would never be able to accomplish these things,’” Spradlin said.

As a program director, Spradlin also gets to help the consumers manage their money. She approves spending, depending on their budgets. She authorized funds for one man to go to Hog Wild and play games, and another consumer saved enough money to go to Disney World, accompanied by an aide.

Spradlin enjoys helping make their dreams come true, helping them achieve goals like anyone else.

“It goes back to listening to people’s stories. It’s so important to listen. It isn’t what I think they need; I need to listen to what they say they need,” she said.

If she could tell people one thing about ILS, it would be that “we’re here for them,” she said.

Over her 40-year career, individuals with intellectual disabilities have become more accepted in society, she said, and more employers are willing to hire them.

“We’ve had such a supportive community,” Spradlin said.

Funding for the program has been a roller coaster, however, and Spradlin is keeping a wary eye on the move toward managed care in Arkansas.

“There are so many unanswered questions as to how our managed-care system will look and operate,” she said. “An entity will be in place to help reduce Medicaid spending, help control Medicaid dollars, which we hope will not reduce services and care.”

Spradlin said that in 1993, she, Schneider and other ILS employees met with President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office to talk about health care and people with developmental disabilities. It was a rare opportunity.

“We had an audience with the president,” she said, still sounding in awe of the experience. A framed photograph of the meeting is displayed in her office.

She said U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., toured the facility on Robins Street recently after a Rotary board meeting took place on-site. Spradlin said Douglas makes a point to invite people to tour the facility to learn about its

programs.

She remembered when the organization had to write grant proposals for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build the two Independent Living Services apartments and a group home.

“Each of these projects required a grant 3 inches thick, and they wanted 12 copies. Back in the day — this was in the ’80s — it was a huge task for this little team. The day we got approval of our HUD projects was also the day of the fair parade. We were all celebrating and thinking the parade was for us,” she said, laughing. “We were able to provide housing — first-rate housing — for all our people.”

Before then, consumers were in a home on Independence Street. Spradlin helped renovate it, including hanging wallpaper. They were happy to have it, she said, but in the winter, the pipes would freeze, and it wasn’t handicapped-accessible. Spradlin said she and other staff members would look out the kitchen window and watch the construction of two group homes that met all their needs.

“It was a glorious day to move in,” she said.

Now Independent Living Services is working on more housing options — smaller homes or apartments for people to have their own space.

So much has changed in 40 years, but the mission is the same, she said. It’s all about the individuals ILS serves.

“I want us to keep doing what we’ve been doing but just get better at it,” she said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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