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Daily News

NORTHAMPTON — Viability Inc., a human-service provider, recently announced Project (VR)², a virtual-reality program dedicated to enhancing access to employment for all and inclusion and empowerment for people with disabilities and other disadvantages.

According to its creators, Project (VR)² is where vocational rehabilitation meets virtual reality (VR)². This first-of-its-kind project, deployed in the midst of COVID-19, will help people who are chronically underserved and marginalized build the vital skills required to advance their ability to gain and maintain employment.

(VR)² makes it possible for individuals to acquire essential interactive soft skills that make or break job success — communication, interviewing, adapting, and problem-solving — in a controlled, safe, and self-reflective virtual work environment. Partners of the virtual collaborative include Link To VR, Bodyswaps, Cleanbox Technology, and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission.

The VR platform Bodyswaps offers a soft-skills simulator, much the same way companies like Boeing leverage flight simulators.

“Immersive VR learning provides access for individuals who are otherwise overlooked in the employment world,” said Kristin Rotas, Viability director. “Access to training and work experiences virtually builds confidence and readiness that will better equip participants to hold jobs that provide income along with a sense of purpose to individuals, a willing workforce for employers, and greater societal equity.”

The program also offers iPads for a 2D immersion into the virtual training and readiness environments.

Collaborating with Cleanbox and Link To VR allowed Viability to safely deploy the VR project in the midst of COVID-19. Cleanbox’s system utilizes UVC rays to eradicate 99.99% of viruses, bacteria, and fungi, essentially decontaminating the headset for reuse.

Viability’s vision for Project (VR)² expanded significantly when the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission provided assisted funding. Together, they are pioneering a new training initiative and encouraging states to bring about technological changes to their current rehabilitation efforts. To help manage the deployment, Viability called on Link To VR, a leading spatial computing company with offices in Boston.

“We were honored to take part in such a fantastic project which provides hands-on access to transformative technologies which help level a competitive employment playing field,” said Edward Zemba, CEO of Link To VR.

Viability is a community-based human-services agency providing employment services, vocational and life-skills training, and other supports to more than 4,000 individuals across five states. Viability partners with more than 600 employers and leverages community resources to overcome barriers with a mission of helping to build a world where individuals with disabilities and other disadvantages can realize their full potential.

To learn more about Project (VR)², e-mail Rotas at [email protected].

Employment

Putting Experience to Work

Colleen Holmes says client employment, inclusion, and empowerment have been challenged by the pandemic.

Colleen Holmes says client employment, inclusion, and empowerment have been challenged by the pandemic.

Colleen Holmes calls it a ‘full-circle moment.’

That’s how she chose to describe her decision to assume the role of president and CEO of Viability, the Springfield-based nonprofit with a broad mission that boils to providing services — and creating opportunities — for those with disabilities. Those opportunities come in a number of forms, and we’ll get to that shortly.

But first, that ‘full circle’ reference. Holmes used it to note that she spent a full decade at one of the legacy agencies, in this case Human Resources Unlimited (HRU), that became Viability in 2107 (Community Enterprises was the other) before moving on to a new role leading as president and CEO of the 18 Degrees agency.

So she’s back where she was. Well, sort of, but not really. Viability is a much bigger agency than HRU was — it boasts $36 million in annual revenues, 420 employees, and 37 sites in four states — and so much has changed in the interim, much it before COVID-19. And the pandemic has simply added another layer — or several layers, when you get right down to it — of challenge and intrigue.

“Coronavirus has in no way taken away from the need for the services we provide. And in many ways, it has made it even more important to provide those services; that has been job one for me, and for all of us here.”

“Coronavirus has in no way taken away from the need for the services we provide,” Holmes explained. “And in many ways, it has made it even more important to provide those services; that has been job one for me, and for all of us here.”

In that respect, much hasn’t changed, and she has, indeed, come full circle, especially when it comes to agency’s mission, which boils down to enriching the lives of the people served by the agency and continuously reinforcing the belief that every individual, no matter their ability, can be a valuable contributor to the community — and the workforce.

It carries out this mission through a number of programs and services, including:

• Clubhouses, which provide members with a supportive environment to increase their vocational, educational, and social skills;

• Partnering with more than 600 employers to provide members with a variety of supported employment opportunities;

• Community living programs that provide that provide care management, direct care, and referral services to individuals with disabilities, enabling them to live in the community with dignity;

• Day supports and various recreational programs that provide individuals with a broad range of community activities; and

• Transitional services that provide members with upfront job-readiness skills, placement assistance, and ongoing supports.

The common denominator in each of these areas, said Holmes, is dedicated staff that not only make the programs happen, but make the individual goal set by and for each member attainable.

“This work doesn’t happen without our staff — and I don’t mean that simply from the standpoint of hands being on deck,” she said. “A lot of the way in which progress is made with individuals is through trusted relationships that are built that give people a safe space to try things, to grow, to progress, to fail and come back and try again another day. Those trusted relationships are pivotal, and our staff’s ability to offer that is everything.”

But COVID has certainly impacted many of these initiatives, said Holmes, adding that the agency has collectively overcome a number of challenges to keep employment, inclusion, access, and empowerment for people with disabilities in the forefront, despite the pandemic. Moving forward, lessons learned from the pandemic will be applied to the future of these programs and services and how they are provided.

“What worries me is that some of these people are losing ground that they worked so hard to gain — people who were working, people who were gaining life skills, people who were gaining in their levels of independence, people who were ready for their next step in employment. There are a number of folks who have lost ground.”

And there will be some important ground to be made up, she said, adding that, in some cases, COVID stunted the progress being made by some members who were forced inside and into a form of isolation that is not part of this agency’s MO.

“What worries me is that some of these people are losing ground that they worked so hard to gain — people who were working, people who were gaining life skills, people who were gaining in their levels of independence, people who were ready for their next step in employment,” she noted. “There are a number of folks who have lost ground.”

Overall, however, many members, and the agency as a whole, have been able to carry on and move forward through this pandemic, she went on, adding that many members work in essential positions, and they take pride in being essential.

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Holmes about her new assignment, but especially about how the pandemic has only magnified the need for the various services this agency provides, and how Viability has gone about responding to this changed landscape.

 

Work in Progress

Holmes said she certainly wasn’t looking for a new challenge when Don Kozera, the long-time CEO of HRU, her former boss (she served the agency as special projects coordinator), and, most recently, the interim president and CEO of Viability following the unexpected passing of Dick Venn (who stepped into that role after having the same titles at Community Enterprises), asked to talk with her about possibly becoming a candidate for this role.

Suffice it to say he did a good sales job, although it wasn’t necessarily a quick or easy sell.

“He said he thought I would be a good fit for this position and asked if I might consider it,” Holmes recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know … I’ll go talk to people; I’m always happy to do that.’”

She did talk to people, and came away intrigued by the possibilities.

“What I saw in this was an opportunity to sort of test my skills and challenge myself in a larger organization; this one is probably two and half times the size of the organization I was leading,” she explained. “Also, and this is probably most compelling, coming to Viability was an opportunity to advance work that matters to me in a different and larger arena.

“Our focus is on employment, training, empowerment, and inclusion with people who have disabilities and other challenges and disadvantages,” she went on, “and that speaks very much to me, in the combination of capacity building and social-justice change.”

Fast-forwarding a little, she did enter what became a nationwide search for a permanent president and CEO, and prevailed through a series of interviews conducted virtually, which she described as a new and different experience — at least as the interviewee.

She arrived in November to a full plate of challenges, including continuation of the daunting process of combining HRU and Community Enterprises into the larger entity that exists today, work that was in some ways slowed, and complicated, by both the passing of Venn and then the arrival of COVID.

“As I came on board, the organization that I am coming to know was ready to be on the other side of that transition,” she told BusinessWest. “And it would have been on the other side sooner had it not been interrupted by the grief and loss of Dick Venn, and had it not been for a pandemic.”

Elaborating, she said that what has been delayed has been the process of “breaking down the silos” within the organization. “You have a much larger organization in every way you can name — there’s more staff, many more programs and services, and in more geographic areas — and one that was continuing to grow, not just as a result of the merger but because it’s part of the mission, vision, and value of the organization. It’s about silos, systems work, and some of the basic functional things, like IT.”

A big part of the process of leading the organization to that proverbial ‘other side’ is to do a lot of “listening, watching, and learning,” she noted.

“You don’t walk into an organization like this one and think you know what you need to know,” she explained. “And I can say I’ve walked into an organization of people who are very welcoming, very helpful, who have lots to share, and who are deeply committed to the mission. Our people show up because they believe in the work that they’re doing and the people they’re working with.”

 

The Job at Hand

Supporting and nurturing this staff is just one of the many priorities for Holmes moving forward — and is, in itself, a challenge.

“One of my larger concerns, and it’s one that’s certainly shared, is the fact that human-service salaries are woefully inadequate to the jobs people do,” she explained. “Joining in advocacy efforts at the state level for eliminating the disparity in pay between community-based providers and state employees who do substantially the same work is important. But it’s also important for us as an organization to prioritize our staff to the extent that the limitations of our largely state-funded dollars allow us to do. Continuing services and supporting our staff are real priorities.”

Another priority, of course, will be transitioning, if that’s the right word, to a post-COVID world. Many staff members have been working remotely, she noted, and there are questions moving forward about how and where work will be carried out and even how much office space the agency may actually need in the short and long term.

And there are many factors to consider in making those decisions, she said.

“It comes down to how we most effectively support the services and the staff members that are delivering the services,” she explained. “There might be a natural tendency to say, ‘OK, there are certain positions that can be carried out remotely, so let’s just put all of them out and save that space.’ But it’s more complicated than that; human-services work is very collaborative. It’s teamwork, but more deeply than that, there is an environment of support that’s hard to come by when you’re not in contact with people, when people don’t see you walk through the hall and see you being a little more tired, a little more stressed than normal. In the kind of work we do, we need to pay attention to that.”

Meanwhile, there are those lessons learned and the new ways of doing things that came about out of necessity — and ingenuity.

“There was a brief period when staff needed to switch to providing services remotely, and … by golly, they did it,” Holmes told BusinessWest. “You get creative, and I’m sure we all have; you learn how to do some things differently, and you discover that the paradigm of how services are provided is turned on its head.

“That’s a new skill set we’ll carry forward, but it by no means replaces in-person services,” she went on, adding that, moving forward, the agency will look toward using the new skills and new technology, including virtual reality, to carry out its mission.

She noted that Viability is using virtual reality to acclimate and train clients and members for job placements. “We started during the pandemic, and we’re very much in the testing and piloting stage,” she explained, adding that early results are very positive. “If you have folks who have autism or others who for various reasons are highly sensitive to changes in environment or to noises, or just to new experiences … to be able to take a work environment and load it into a virtual-reality system so that people can safely explore and navigate that workspace without actually being there is very advantageous. It can lead to much smoother transitions.”

As for the employment programs, the ones that put thousands of individuals in jobs across this region and beyond, COVID prompted some businesses to close and many others to slow down, said Holmes, adding that obvious question marks remain about when and to what extent business, and jobs, will pick up again.

“It is a concern as to how long the economic rebound takes, and if there continues to be a shortage of positions,” she said. “As is so often the case, people who are marginalized are pushed out first, so that is a concern. But there are a number of employers we partner with who, through experience, will tell you the value of working with us, and that, when it comes to our members, their attendance is superior, and the quality of their work is at least on par.”

 

Past Is Prologue

Holmes has talked with many such employers over the years, so she understands those sentiments. She has, as she said at the top, come full circle when it comes to her career in human services.

But in most all respects, she is not coming back to where she was years ago. The landscape has changed in myriad ways and, thanks to COVID, it continues to change, each month and almost each week.

This is a different test, a sterner test, one she fully embraces. As she said, she’s excited about the opportunities — for herself, but especially for those benefiting from Viability’s programs and services.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Viability kept employment, inclusion, access, and empowerment for people with disabilities in the forefront despite the pandemic, says Viability’s new president and CEO, Colleen Holmes.

“For people confronting challenges ranging from mobility to mental health, capability stereotypes to substance abuse, isolation to meeting daily basic needs, just saying ‘we’ll get through this together’ rings hollow,” she added. “Viability had to move into hyperdrive to combat the new barriers of social distancing, shutdowns, and fear.”

Holmes brings 30 years of human-service experience to her new role with Viability, which began in November following a nationwide search. A resident of Springfield, she was most recently president and CEO of 18 Degrees and started in the field at Human Resources Unlimited, one of the agencies that formed Viability.

“I was drawn to Viability’s sky-high possibilities and innovative work in equity, access, and inclusion for people with disabilities and those confronting other social-justice challenges,” she said.

Viability is a community-based human-services agency providing employment services, vocational and life-skills training, and other supports to more than 4,000 individuals across five states. Viability partners with more than 600 employers and leverages community resources to overcome barriers with a mission of helping to build a world where individuals with disabilities and other disadvantages can realize their full potential.

In the last six months, Viability placed 180 individuals in jobs and was the vehicle for another 48 individuals to land employment through its consulting-services arm, Corporate Inclusion Solutions (CIS), which works with national employers to demonstrate how inclusion reduces turnover and meaningfully increases diversity.

Two of Viability’s clubhouse programs — Berkshire Pathways and Forum House — which serve individuals with mental illness with a motto of “recovery through work,” achieved renewed three-year accreditations from Clubhouse International. Viability also expanded services by opening Olympus, a new program site advancing life skills and possibilities for individuals with developmental disabilities, and moved its headquarters to Springfield.

People on the Move

Jill Monson-Bishop

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recently welcomed Jill Monson-Bishop into the role of Community Development manager. She comes to the ACS with expertise in networking, relationship building, marketing, project management, and more. Prior to joining the American Cancer Society, Monson-Bishop was one of the opening-day team members at MGM Springfield, with responsibilities including internal communications and employee events. She also owns Inspired Marketing, now a consultative marketing agency, but at one time a full-service marketing and event-planning company serving clients such as Smith & Wesson, Adam Quenneville Roofing, and Northwestern Mutual. Previously, she was a radio personality in Western Mass. on stations such as WMAS, Rock 102, WHYN, and more. Community engagement has always been a priority for Monson-Bishop, who, over the years, has been involved with organizations such the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield, Square One, YWCA, the Springfield Regional Chamber, the Drama Studio, and more. She is a graduate of Bay Path University with a MBA in entrepreneurial thinking and innovative practices, and she earned her bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies at Westfield State University.

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Jeffrey Neumann

Valley Solar, LLC announced the appointment of Jeffrey Neumann as lead master electrician. Neumann started with Valley Solar in April 2019 and will oversee all electrical operations. Prior to working at Valley Solar, Neumann was the electrical foreman at Hampshire College from 2010 to 2019. There, he supervised a crew of four journeyman electricians and oversaw all aspects of the the college’s Electrical Department, including supervision of crews, planning, budgeting, installations, and maintenance of campus electrical systems. He also oversaw several solar projects while at Hampshire and has performed solar installations involving single-phase residential wiring as well as more complex three-phase commercial projects.

 

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Linda Morgan, an attorney with extensive experience in higher education, has been named vice president and general counsel at Springfield College, effective Aug. 26, President Mary-Beth Cooper announced. Morgan will provide legal counsel and guidance to the leadership of the college and will serve as secretary to its board of trustees. She will be a member of the president’s senior leadership team. Joining Springfield College with 13 years of service as a practicing attorney and more than six years in positions of senior-level organizational management and financial administration, Morgan is well-practiced in providing leadership to institutional compliance with laws and regulations pertinent to higher education, including the Higher Education Opportunity Act, Title IX, FERPA, HIPAA, and the Jeanne Clery Act. She provides experience in broad aspects of law and related matters, including contracts, agreements, litigation, legal investigations, dispute resolution, mediation, business formation, compliance, and management. She is admitted to the bars of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the State of New York, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Morgan most recently worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, providing expertise in areas of employment-law adjudication and related statutory interpretation. Her previous experience also includes service as associate dean for Gender Equity at Bard College, grant administrator within the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland, and an attorney in private practice. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Maryland University College and a juris doctor from Western New England University School of Law. She has teaching experience as an adjunct professor at Holyoke Community College and Greenfield Community College.

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Jean Deliso

Jean Deliso, CFP has been selected for membership in the Nautilus Group, a service of New York Life. The Nautilus Group is a planning resource comprised of financial professionals experienced in taxes, law, life insurance, accounting, and charitable giving. Deliso’s access to this exclusive resource enables her clients and their other financial advisors to benefit from the group’s collective experience and solutions as they apply to the protection, accumulation, and distribution of wealth to individuals, families, and business owners throughout the country. Deliso is president and owner of Deliso Financial and Insurance Services, a firm focusing on comprehensive financial strategies that position clients for a solid financial future. Her 30-year experience has led to a focus in certain fields, such as cash management, risk management, investment, and retirement planning. She has developed an expertise in assisting business owners with protecting and securing their future. She is also fully committed to educating individuals regarding their finances and frequently conducts workshops advocating financial empowerment. She has been a member of New York Life Chairman’s Council since 2012 and a qualifying member of the Million Dollar Round Table since 1999. Members of the Chairman’s Council rank in the top 3% of New York Life’s sales force of more than 12,000 licensed agents in sales achievement. Deliso currently serves on and is past chairman of the board of the Baystate Health Foundation and the Community Music School of Springfield. She has also served on the board of the YMCA of Greater Springfield and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

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Darcy Fortun

The Ad Club of Western Massachusetts recently recognized the Innovation Series with an award in the Video Series category. The Innovation Series is a documentary-style video series produced by Darcy Fortune, producer for Garvey Communication Associates Inc. (GCAi), for PeoplesBank. The series explored Valley Venture Mentors and some of its more unique entrepreneurial teams. The series was hosted by Matthew Bannister, first vice president of Marketing and Innovation for PeoplesBank. According to the bank’s website, the six-episode Innovation Series was designed and produced with the belief that PeoplesBank can not only be innovative, but help inspire innovation as well. The series garnered considerable media attention, with feature stories appearing in BusinessWest and several other area media outlets, as well as a sizable viewing audience. GCAi also distributed the Innovation Series through social-media channels, where it accumulated almost 400,000 total impressions, 100,000 engagement actions, and 90,000 video views at the time of the award. Fortune’s team included GCAi’s John Garvey as producer, Mary Shea as project manager, and James Garvey as digital dissemination manager. Matthew Derderian served as director of photography. Fortune is an experienced media professional and video producer, having served on assignment desks for both ABC and FOX News affiliates and developed videos and animations for GCAi clients including Connecticut Orthopaedic Specialists, Cape Cod Cooperative Bank, MP CPAs, PeoplesBank, Peter Pan Bus Lines, and Winchester Savings Bank. She also just released two new pro bono videos for the Children’s Study Home and Wild Care of Cape Cod.

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Yvonne De Faoite

Elms College announced it will host an Irish Fulbright language teaching assistant (FLTA) during the 2019-20 academic year. Yvonne De Faoite of Limerick, Ireland, will teach Irish (Gaelic) language and culture. The Irish FLTA position is co-sponsored by the Irish Cultural Center of Western Massachusetts. De Faoite earned her primary teaching degree from Froebel College of Education in 2008. In 2012, she spent a year in Australia, where she gained international teaching experience. She recently completed a master’s degree in Irish immersion education from Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. Prior to that, she completed a diploma in educational leadership in University College Dublin. De Faoite’s educational interests include immersion and second-language acquisition. As a Fulbright Irish FLTA, she will teach the Irish language and culture to Elms College students and to community members through the Irish Cultural Center. She will also take classes at Elms.

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Robert Burnell has been appointed executive chef of all dining venues at the Red Lion Inn. In his new role, Burnell oversees the day-to-day culinary operations of the main dining room, Widow Bingham’s Tavern, the Lion’s Den, and the seasonally open courtyard. In addition, Burnell will collaborate with Brian Alberg, vice president of Culinary Development, on all future food- and beverage-related development, including specialty menus for Red Lion guests and private parties. With nearly 20 years in the food, beverage, and hospitality industries, Burnell was previously executive chef at Gedney Farm in Marlborough. With a passion for clean cooking and eating, coupled with expertise in modern food trends, Burnell revamped menus to incorporate locally sourced items, along with gluten-free, vegetarian, and keto options for diners. He also strived to deliver exceptional client experiences for weddings, community events, and private dining. Additional hospitality experience includes five years as a property developer for Berkshire Hotels Group, during which he implemented construction projects for both hotels and restaurants.

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Sean Sormanti

Michael Tucker, president and CEO of Greenfield Cooperative Bank, announced that Sean Sormanti has joined the bank as senior vice president – Human Resources. Most recently, Sormanti was director of Human Resources at Strategic Information Resources in Springfield. In his new role, he will be responsible for recruiting, planning, coordinating, and managing the activities of the bank’s Human Resources department. He will be based at 63 Federal St. in Greenfield. Sormanti has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine. He currently holds a professional in human resources certificate and is an active member of the Western Mass. chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management.

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Joseph Baker

 

Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation (BTCF) announced that Joseph Baker has joined its team as vice president of Finance and Administration. He will oversee finances, investments, human resources, and operations for the $152 million foundation. Baker previously served in leadership roles at other community foundations for 13 years, most recently as vice president of Finance and chief financial officer at Fairfield County’s Community Foundation. Before that, he was director of Finance and Administration at the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain. He brings to BTCF a background in nonprofit finance and development, as the former head of a United Way and a nonprofit service organization. He also developed Danbury Children First, a parent-led community initiative. Baker earned his MBA from the Yale School of Management and a bachelor’s degree in economics and Spanish from Colby College.

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Bob Cummings has been re-elected to serve as president of the National Assoc. of Professional Benefits Administrators (NAPBA). A  NAPBA trustee since 2007, Cummings was first elected NAPBA president in 2015, and has been an instrumental force in the emergence of the consumer-directed healthcare industry over the past 20 years, orchestrating the growth of NAPBA as the primary compliance-standards and best-practice organization for third-party employee-benefits administrators serving the consumer-directed healthcare industry. As CEO and founder of American Benefits Group (ABG), a leading national employee-benefits administrator located in Northampton, Cummings has been a pioneer of the consumer-directed healthcare industry before the term even existed. ABG was one of the first administrators of flexible spending accounts (FSAs) in 1989 along with COBRA, billing-administration, and commuter-benefit accounts in the 1990s. When health savings accounts (HSA) and health reimbursement arrangements (HRA) were enabled under the Internal Revenue Code in 2002, ABG was one of the early leaders in administering consumer-directed healthcare plan designs. As pre-tax, account-based plans became a linchpin of most employer benefit-plan designs along with high-deductible health plans, NAPBA was founded to promote compliance and best-practice standards in the administration of pre-tax, account-based plans. All NAPBA member organizations are third-party administrators focused on the administration and service of employer-sponsored plans for consumer-directed pre-tax accounts such as FSAs, HSAs, HRAs, and commuter benefits, as well as COBRA administration services. Collectively NAPBA member organizations provide services to more than 30 million employee healthcare consumers nationwide.

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Richard Venne, president and CEO of Viability, announced longtime staffer Richard Horton’s promotion to vice president of Administration and Finance. Horton joined Community Enterprises, one of the nonprofits that merged to become Viability, in July 2008 as director of Community Staffing. Before joining Viability as a staff member, he had executed consulting work to revive and re-engineer the Community Staffing operations. Over the next decade, his role expanded, first becoming director of Financial Planning and then associate vice president of Administration and Finance. He is known throughout the organization for serving as project manager for the implementation of Viability’s electronic health record and outcomes-management system. Two years ago, during the merger of Community Enterprises and Human Resources Unlimited into Viability, he led the effort to bring the infrastructure of the organizations together, focusing on technology and facilities. Entering its third year as Viability, the agency’s focus is on the creation, integration, standardization, and improvement of systems and processes. In his new role, Horton will play a central role in helping achieve that goal.

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