AS PHILLIP C. Holmes strides through the League for the Handicapped headquarters on East Cold Spring Lane, he greets nearly everyone by their first name.
In a sheltered workshop where employees stuff envelopes, Holmes stops for a minute to chat with Gary Kritzer, 37, who uses a wheelchair. The two discuss Kritzer's needs as a young man who lives independently, struggles to make ends meet and could thrive in the right working environment beyond the League.
"This I don't mind," although "piecework doesn't pay," Kritzer says. "I would prefer to do something else, another challenge. Anything that relates to my hands."
Holmes, who joined the League as its chief executive officer in January, listens intently to Kritzer, a workshop client since 1985.
He makes it a point to understand the needs of his clients: the 1,300 children and adults with physical disabilities, who every year participate in the League's fitness center, medical day care program, educational and job training programs, literacy center, sheltered workshop, and Camp Greentop in the Catoctin Mountains. "You build your organization around where the person meets the program, from the bottom up, not top down," Holmes says.
In his approach to serving clients, Holmes, 44, is attempting to manage the non-profit organization with a $1.6-million annual budget and 36 employees as an enlightened CEO might run a corporation. Networking, five-year plans and employee incentives are all new League buzzwords.
Holmes is a believer in "using the best of government and business practices in non-profits," he says. "The new wave is being more entrepreneurial; we should market ourselves. [Some view it] as so radical [and believe that it] cheapens and diminishes our mission. Forget what we want, what do consumers and customers want?"
For the customers' sake, "You need to recruit and retain your best staff, reward good performance; [it's] part business and part government practice."
As an incentive for remaining in a field that is traditionally low-paying, Holmes is offering discount memberships to the underutilized fitness center and pool for employees of the League and other disability groups that participate in League programs. League volunteers, numbering over 100, are given job descriptions and are treated as employees with specific roles. Veterans of League programs are invited back to lend their expertise. And non-disabled children are encouraged to attend Camp Greentop. "Mainstreaming works both ways," Holmes says.
Holmes' philosophy is honed by nearly two decades in the disability field, both in the public and private sectors.
After obtaining his master's degree from the University of Maryland School of Social Work in 1973, Holmes first went to work for Karin Batterton at the Developmental Disabilities Council, a federally mandated state program that works for the welfare of citizens with severe disabilities which occur in childhood and require ongoing support.
Batterton, now a partner in the W.H.C. Wilson & Co. realty company, praises Holmes' ability to work with different groups to establish cohesive, statewide programs. "He had a real feel for services needed, and the politics in place [around the state] as related to developmental disabilities," she says.
Holmes' enterprising philosophy comes at a key time in the history of the League, founded in 1927 as The Maryland League for Crippled Children.
A former colleague of Holmes and longtime advocate for the disabled explains, "The organization has had some severe problems both in defining its role and maintaining its financial base. As services [for the disabled] proliferate, the League has had to figure out where it fits in now. They have had a terrific endowment that can only be drained for so long without replenishing it."
The United Way is the largest single contributor to the League, which, unlike similar organizations, is supported mainly by private contributions. League officials hope to gross $100,000 at their annual fund-raising event tomorrow at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel.
Keeping the League viable means looking ahead, Holmes says. "You've got be three and five years out in future, with long-range plans. If you're constantly asking yourself what people with disabilities and handicaps need today and three to five years out, the constant tension keeps the organization renewing itself."
A large part of Holmes' five-year plan deals with meeting the needs of one disabled population in particular.
In Maryland, young disabled adults who either graduate from school or turn 21 lose their special education eligibility and often wind up as "critical needs" along with about 6,000 others awaiting adult services, Holmes says.
"We call it the abyss," he says. "They're staying at home, waiting to be put on a waiting list and watching TV. These are bright, engaging kids." By addressing the needs of young adults, the League will also address its own needs, Holmes believes.
He is looking toward the future, but Holmes also seeks to improve the League's standing programs. Without a strong foundation, it is difficult to justify expansion, Holmes says. Besides, too many clients already depend on the services in place.
The sheltered workshop, for example, has been a mainstay of the League since its founding. The workshops, which provide an in-house workplace where clients perform piecework, have fallen into disfavor among advocates and clients who say they isolate disabled citizens and pay demeaning wages.
Backed by the teeth of the federal Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, Holmes would like to place more clients like Gary Kritzer into workplaces within the community, a "time expensive" process largely abandoned by the League in past years. At the same time, Holmes does not want to force longtime sheltered workshop employees out of their secure environment. "We want to give them the option and support them in their choice," Holmes says.
For more information about the League for the Handicapped, call 323-0500 during regular business hours.