Char Gentes to leave Riverside Industries after 37 years



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EASTHAMPTON – During his career spanning nearly four decades, Char Gentes has seen a positive shift in the way the company helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities live rich and independent lives.

But things were not so “golden” at the start of his career, before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. To illustrate the point, Gentes, who will retire early next month after 37 years at Riverside Industries in Easthampton, remembers what were the opening of ‘Golden Drive’ in Northampton. At the time, three people living at Belchertown State School were about to move into a residence on Golden Drive. They encountered negative reactions from community members opposed to this transition.

“There was huge opposition. I remember attending the council meeting in Northampton and people were very angry and categorically opposed. People were shouting, ‘These people cannot live here,’ ”said Gentes. “They had never met these women. I had just met them. They were really calm and gentle and probably in their thirties. But there was so much opposition that the house never opened on Golden Drive. It took years for these women to be placed.

The ADA became law soon after, prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places open to the public. .

Since then, Gentes said, there has been much more integration of people with disabilities into communities. Between that and a movement to educate and raise awareness of people with intellectual disabilities more, she said public perception and the field itself have come a long way.

“The things that happened then don’t happen anymore. People move around the communities on the left and on the right. They live and belong to a community. They are seen as they are and people work in communities. They work in supermarkets and small businesses, ”she said. “That would never have happened 40 years ago when I started. “

Gentes has devoted 37 years to Riverside Industries, including the past 10 years President and CEO of the agency, which runs a host of programs from its Easthampton headquarters designed to help people with developmental disabilities. and developmental to live fully.

Gentes’ career with Riverside began in 1981 after graduating from Springfield College with his Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling. In that first role, she worked as a house manager for Maple Street, which was the name of a house the agency previously owned as it provided residential services. In less than a year, she took on the role of Day Enabling Advisor and spent three years in that role.

She also left Riverside for three years to work at Baroco Corp., another organization that provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

From there, Gentes saw a position at Riverside, applied, and was hired as the agency’s director of employment services in 1987. She also served as director of the seniors program and projects. Specials for the President, and Director of Community Relations and Development.

Gentes said she was grateful to be part of a movement – not only in Easthampton, but nationwide – that has helped people with intellectual and developmental disabilities integrate into society.

Early in her career, she remembered that the people who used Riverside’s services showed sheer appreciation. Those who were institutionalized at Belchertown State School lacked the capacity to make even simple choices on their own, she said. While choosing between a grilled cheese or a turkey sandwich might not seem like much to most people these days, to those who have never had the opportunity, it was pure bliss, she added.

“I think seeing people get rights – which they should have already had to begin with – is wonderful. Now they have opportunities for those privileges that we all have and take for granted every day, ”said Gentes. “With the support of the staff here, we’ve seen people play guitar, get out of their wheelchairs and walk, play the piano – or even those who have learned how to make a cup of coffee or write their name by themselves – same. They work. Over the past 40 years, there has been so much growth.

Still, the work was not without challenges. As a private, not-for-profit agency, securing funding has sometimes been difficult. The biggest challenge throughout Gentes’ tenure, however, has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on Riverside.

The organization has moved from a facility to a completely remote facility and is still in the process of making the transition. Currently Riverside has 112 employees. To bring back all of its 264 clients, Gentes said the agency needed to hire an additional 25 to 30 employees, which proved to be a challenge.

As she passes the baton to Lynn Ostrowski-Ireland, Ph.D., who was appointed Riverside’s new President and CEO in November, Gentes said she hopes the agency is on the right track. to be fully staffed with all clients returning for in-person services.

Kathy Hall, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Riverside, said Ostrowski-Ireland’s experience has given her strong working relationships with business and lawmakers.

“We are all convinced that Lynn has the depth of experience and leadership skills to lead Riverside over the next decade and beyond,” said Hall.

Ostrowski-Ireland most recently served as the Director of Operations for Sisters for Providence Ministry Corp., based in Holyoke, where she oversaw programs focused on helping the elderly and disadvantaged.

Prior to that, she was COO of Viability Inc., headquartered in Northampton. She also worked at Health New England as Director of Corporate Responsibility and Government Affairs.

Meanwhile, for Gentes, retirement is on the way.

“I’m retiring feeling happy and very fulfilled, and it’s a great feeling,” she said. “I have no regrets.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at [email protected]

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