‘They’re not alone’
Passion. Devotion. Compassion and understanding.
These are just a few of the qualities Kim Olson has displayed over the past 40 years while working with the Alpha Resource Center.
As Ms. Olson steps away from the program that creates new avenues and provides services for those who suffer from intellectual disabilities, her colleagues are set to honor her during a retirement party next weekend.
Ms. Olson entered the field of developmental disabilities in 1976 when she was part of an after-school recreation program with the city of Santa Barbara.
“It was fantastic,” she recalled. “Here are folks who want to learn; that enjoyed being engaged, are curious, eager, and constantly striving. They were the most transparent, authentic people I’d ever met.”
It was that transparency and authenticity that led to her joining Alpha in 1979 — though it may be the program’s rich history that kept her coming back.
In the fall of 1950, Candace Anderson, Elaine Roberts and Norman Dahl — the parents of three young children with Down syndrome — hired a group of college students to teach their children. The sessions were continued privately until 1953, when the Santa Barbara City Schools established a state-legislated permissive training program. The school system took over the program in 1955 and it continued to grow.
Ms. Olson knew all three founders and said they were a great inspiration.
“They were the shoulder that I stood upon,” she told the News-Press. “My job was to steward the organization based on their dream.”
In April 1966, Alpha’s home on Cathedral Oaks Road was dedicated. Services have been expanded over the years and today, Alpha Resource Center provides parent-to-parent support from prenatal diagnosis through death.
“We reach out just to let them know they’re not alone,” said Ms. Olson, who went on to become the center’s executive director in 1992.
While much has changed, Alpha’s mission has remained consistent – empowering people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities to allow them to make their mark on the world. Alpha’s programs seek to highlight the ability and potential of those served while supporting 2,200 families countywide, creating opportunities and fostering belonging.
Things haven’t always been easy, however. During the 1970s, Ms. Olson recalled working with people who were previously institutionalized and had never been supported expressing choice. Some had never cooked their own meals, or had ever been to the grocery store. Others had never spent a night away from home.
“Those from the institution, it was just de-institutionalizing them,” she said. “This behavior of compliance, or sheer hostility towards people telling them what to do 24-7.”
Ms. Olson said she has been excited to lead the charge for those who are underserved, though she knows there is work to be done.
“I’ve never once believed we’re there,” she said. “And I know as I depart and pass the baton that we’re not there either.”
In the past few years, Alpha has continued to blossom. The center now offers a summer theater program for its teen group and in 2003 Alpha opened SlingShot, an art studio and gallery on Canon Perdido Street for artists with intellectual disabilities.
Outlets like these have allowed the participants to have a sense of purpose and fulfillment, while also nurturing relationships and friendships.
“There’s a real caring and support system among them,” Ms. Olson said. “But they also love to give back to the community as much as a 5-year-old wants to mow the lawn with dad.”
A few years ago, UCSB’s College of Creative Studies hosted an art showing. Ms. Olson remembers seeing academics examining the artwork – with no mention of the artists behind the work.
“I felt like ‘this is what we’re about,’” Ms. Olson said. “We’re finding a place for belonging for our folks in which disability is just an element of who they are, but they’re valued for the fact that they’re an artist.”
Her decision to step away was not an easy one.
“I promised myself very early in my career I would not retire on the job,” she said. “I’m 65. I’ve been here for 40 years. It’s just good numerically to pass the baton.”
Along with her work locally, Ms. Olson served on the board of the National Conference of Executives of the Arc of the United States from 2002 to 2006. She also served on the National Advisory Board to the College of Direct Support from 2002 to 2009.
She plans on staying involved with Alpha moving forward, even if it is at a lesser capacity.
“It’s all about the people and it’s about the families,” she explained. “I’ve grown up with some of these guys. We’ve known each other for like 40 years. I can’t say goodbye to friends just because I’m not there day in and day out.
“The future for the organization is finding those ways in which we connect with others based upon their skills and strengths and not on their deficits,” she said. “Removing that label so that people see what they’re connected to.”
Ms. Olson was scheduled to retire Oct. 25, though an unexpected medical procedure caused her to step away a few weeks earlier. Joshua Weitzman, who has been shadowing Ms. Olson for the past few months, has taken over the organization. He told the News-Press he hopes to continue the legacy that Ms. Olson carried on so well.
“The thing to me that stands out the most is her devotion to the participants of our programs” Mr. Weitzman said. “She has really given her whole life to them and it’s inspiring for our board and inspiring for me taking over to continue that legacy.”
Mr. Weitzman, who has two children with intellectual disabilities, has known Ms. Olson for about 12 years. A few years ago, when he became the board president, Mr. Weitzman recalled a discussion regarding the organization’s finances and how they would move forward during a tough financial period. Ms. Olson was determined to carry on no matter the circumstances.
“You could feel her tenacity, and that really brought us through the hard times and the good times,” he said.
DeeDee Barthelmess, associate director of development at Alpha, grew up immersed in the Alpha family attending events with her parents and grandparents – Bob and Ruth Kallman – who were instrumental in the 1950s and 60s with the acquisition of the site and building of the resource center on Cathedral Oaks Road.
At a recent board meeting, Ms. Olson gave Ms. Barthelmess a crystal bowl that was given to Ms. Olson by one of the founding mothers.
“The family legacy that my grandparents began back in the 1950s has played a huge role in our family’s lives ever since,” Ms. Barthelmess said. “Spending my first two years in the nonprofit world under (Ms. Olson) has completely transformed how I see my career.
“She taught me everything I could want to know about compassion and understanding,” she added. “She’s absolutely amazing… She has really changed the lives of so many people in our community – including our staff. We couldn’t have asked for a better leader for the past 40 years.”
Patty Moore, who has been with Alpha for almost 30 years, said that she respected how Ms. Olson trusted her staff and let them do their jobs – while also offering guidance along the way.
Ms. Moore, the manager for Alpha’s Children, Family and Advocacy Services, recalled that Ms. Olson would constantly remind her staff that if they were making a difference in one person’s life, their work was more meaningful than they could ever imagine. She also praised Ms. Olson’s national impact for direct support personnel and her work developing curriculum for support personnel.
“She just has a great respect for the individuals we work with, as well as their families,” Ms. Moore told the News-Press. “She just really respects the voices of the participants and the families. It’s those voices that drive our family organization. With the Alpha family – it runs deep whether you’re related or not.”
Ms. Olson’s retirement party will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Alpha Resource Center, 4501 Cathedral Oaks Road. Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP to Ms. Barthelmess at firstname.lastname@example.org.