ELKHART — A long-time advocate of children and adults with disabilities will retire later this year as the leader of one of Elkhart County’s largest nonprofit groups.
Paula Shively has strived for the past 12 years to push ADEC into the community’s spotlight, expanding programs and services for the organization’s clients with cognitive and developmental disabilities. She will retire as the agency’s president and CEO in six months.
Since joining ADEC in 2001, Shively has overseen the launch of new summer day camp and after-school programs for children with disabilities as well as the opening of two new coffee shops in Goshen and Middlebury where ADEC’s clients work and get a chance to interact with the public.
“You can’t make friends with a person if you’re not with them, if you’re not physically in the same space with them,” Shively said. “You can’t get to know them, and that’s the thing that changes the lives of people with disabilities, people in the community getting to know them.”
ADEC serves more than 1,000 children and adults per day in Elkhart and St. Joseph counties. Clients volunteer thousands of hours annually at local nutrition sites, the Salvation Army and The Window in Goshen, Shively said.
“They’re really, really involved in our community,” she added.
The proudest moment of Shively’s career came about two-and-a-half years ago.
“There was an agency that was allegedly abusing, or at least neglecting, the people they were supposed to serve and support,” she recalled. “The state closed them down and asked us to take the folks, and within 24 hours, we had 32 people.”
Shively closed a couple of buildings on ADEC’s Bristol campus to set up emergency shelter for the new clients, many of whom now live at the organization’s group homes in South Bend.
“It was absolutely amazing, and people worked around the clock,” Shively said. “Some people worked just an amazing number of hours, and people came in and volunteered.”
Shively hopes Elkhart County’s support of ADEC will continue to be strong even after she leaves the organization. She said there are a few things the community can do to assure that people with disabilities will continue to receive the attention and care they deserve.
“The first would be to hire somebody,” she said. “The second would be to understand that the way services for people with disabilities are supported in the state of Indiana is through Medicaid, and when people are talking about cutting entitlements, that’s what they’re talking about. And the third thing would be to acknowledge and respect the staff people that work directly with our folks.”
ADEC has more than 450 employees, most of whom work directly with clients.
“They are people with an amazing amount of knowledge and skill, and sometimes people just assume they are baby-sitting, but they are teachers,” Shively said. “They’re people who support people with disabilities so that somebody else can live their own life. That’s a real skill that not many people have.”
Ideally, Shively said she would like to see professionals who work with people with disabilities to be paid more and have more opportunities to better their lives through education.
Cary Kelsey, who has worked at ADEC for 43 years, described Shively as a strong leader who does all she can to help clients accomplish their personal dreams, whether that means getting a job or learning to live independently despite their disability. Shively also has a smart business sense, he added.
“Paula has been a careful steward of agency resources,” said Kelsey, who works as Shively’s assistant. “She always asks the question, ‘How well will this expenditure or this investment benefit the people we serve?’”
Shively has learned many important life lessons during her time at ADEC.
“I’ve learned to trust communities, especially ours,” she said. “When something happens that’s bad, immediately fear sets in, and I’ve learned that people in the community are going to get behind others and support them. You’re not going to be left out there working on something all by yourself.”