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October 7, 2013 Stephen Becker

Becker leads lifelong pursuit of acceptance, understanding

Photo | Pablo Robles
Photo | Contributed

Back in college, Stephen Becker spent his summers working as a camp counselor for special needs children in Pennsylvania. Little did he know then that the experience would shape his more than three decades long career helping people with intellectual disabilities.

“I was intrigued by the progress that the kids made in eight short weeks, in a structured environment geared toward an intensive 24/7 learning experience,” Becker recalls. “At the close of each camp session, I remember being saddened when some of the children had to return to state institutions, where they would be isolated from their families and communities. At that time, families had few alternatives for help, other than institutionalization.”

It wasn't, of course, until 1975 when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act that public education for children with disabilities was granted.

Becker's camp experiences would ultimately serve as the foundation for a career spent tirelessly working to improve the lives of those affected by intellectual disabilities. After 36 years of service, Becker recently retired as president and CEO of HARC, a Hartford nonprofit that offers early intervention, family support, respite care, employment development, and residential programs to people with disabilities.

Beginning with a staff of just 22 and a budget of $385,000, Becker led HARC to tremendous growth. Today, the organization serves more than 1,100 clients each year with a staff of 400 people and a $17 million budget.

About 85 percent of HARC's funding comes the state; other revenue is provided by the United Way and fundraising/development activities.

Becker admits he wasn't initially comfortable asking people for money. In fact, he says his father never even allowed him to go trick-or-treating out of concern for disturbing people, or putting them on the spot.

“I think my turnaround came when I felt a sense of moral responsibility to do what I can to help improve quality of life for people whom I care deeply about; my passion overcame my reticence,” Becker said. “Generating start-up revenue to get the infrastructure and initial staffing in place was a tremendous high for me. It was an outgrowth of our observations about what we perceived as needs and gaps in consort with the vision of self-advocates and families.”

Becker spearheaded several major initiatives at HARC that led to the organization's growth and success, including job training and day programs.

HARC has always sought to generate collaborations with area businesses to provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities. But, while independent competitive employment is the ultimate goal, most of HARC's clients require supportive job coaching on an intermittent or full-time basis.

“We continue to struggle to engage new collaborations and have difficulty keeping up with job opportunities for the kids graduating from high school who need supported employment,” Becker says. “However, with that said, it has been widely recognized that the number and diversity of supported employment opportunities that HARC offers is among the best in the nation.”

In fact, HARC's work with many industries — including law, insurance, and architecture firms, as well as hospitals, real estate management companies, investment houses, and distribution outfits — has resulted in tremendous growth in clients who choose HARC for employment services.

Under Becker's leadership HARC also developed specialized day programs, which operate out of the nonprofits Bulova Center, a 15,000-square foot program space in Hartford that offers a diversity of activities for people with disabilities including visual arts, music, vocational skills, spa experiences, occupational therapy, cooking, and assistive technology, Becker said.

Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, Connecticut joined other states in passing legislation that enabled the private sector to develop residential options for people with intellectual disabilities, which would ultimately replace state-operated facilities. During Becker's tenure, HARC was a pioneer in Connecticut opening its first group home in 1982. Today, HARC provides residential options in group homes, condos, apartments and community companion homes.

“Residential independence is integral to one's sense of competence in an environment that is focused on their wants and needs as adults, rather than remaining a 'child' in their family home throughout their lives,” Becker said.

Jim Heffernan, a director in the environmental claim department at Travelers, serves on HARC's board of directors and has known Becker for many years, developing a strong professional and personal friendship.

“The status quo was never satisfactory to Steve since he believed that things could always be made better,” Heffernan says. “He has compassion for people of all levels of ability, which along with terrific analytical and communications skills makes him a natural and strong advocate. His goal has always been to make life better for others and to ensure that people with intellectual disability are treated with respect and dignity everywhere in the community.”

On a personal level, Heffernan says his own family benefited greatly from the advice and counsel that Becker provided as they cared for their son, Brian, who had multiple disabilities.

“Steve always made himself available to families to discuss their challenges such as what does life offer after a person with intellectual disability ages out of the school system,” Heffernan said.

Becker said he expects to remain very active during retirement. He plans to write and conduct a small practice that focuses on human resources consultation to new and experienced mid- and upper-level managers, as well as nonprofit consultation.

He also plans to continue serving on the board of the National Conference of Community and Justice of Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, organized to fight bigotry based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender-biases and disability.

“Intellectual disability is a condition that affects the individual and the entire family system throughout the entire lifespan,” Becker said. “It has been enormously gratifying to be part of their journey, from the point of diagnosis that was often fraught with fear and disappointment, to the joyful and loving acceptance and celebration of their children's gifts.”

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