Sunday profile: Sims helps give voice to vulnerable as MVDS director
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Two people matter most as Sara Sims goes about her busy day directing one of the longest-running human service organizations based in Glenwood Springs.
“It’s important for the community to know that the people we support do have value,” Sims said of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are served across a four-county region by Mountain Valley Developmental Services.
“These are people who are eager to engage, to be present, to be considered for employment, and who are interested in volunteering in any way they can,” Sims said.
Likewise, the people who work directly with Mountain Valley’s clients on a daily basis — in the day programs, in group homes, during outings, and striving to just give families some peace of mind — simply put, “they have a hard job.”
“It’s physically demanding and mentally taxing to support these individuals,” Sims said. “You have to be nimble, and you have to have some knowledge of everything that gets thrown at you.
“Our direct support staff are incredibly valuable, and we can’t do it without them,” Sims said.
Sims took over as executive director for MVDS last summer, following the retirement of longtime director Bruce Christensen, who had been at the helm for nearly 40 years.
But she wasn’t a new face to the organization, having begun with MVDS 22 years ago as one of those very direct-support people she now holds in such high regard.
Originally from Nebraska where she worked in a residential treatment center for children with developmental disabilities in Lincoln, Sims relocated to Rifle and eventually Glenwood Springs.
Through that time, she has served in various capacities at MVDS — as an adult case manager, as service coordinator in the early-childhood intervention program, as director of child and family services and as associate director for four years prior to being named executive director.
Her husband, Joe Sims, is director of the ski and snowboard education center at Sunlight Mountain Resort. They have two children, Jake, who’s 12, and Grace, 11.
Sims said a key to Mountain Valley’s success over the years as it’s grown to serve Garfield, Eagle, Pitkin and Lake counties, is that it has managed to build a stable leadership team. That can sometimes be difficult in the world of nonprofit human service agencies, especially in the mountain resort region, she acknowledged.
MVDS now has about 140 employees working to support 135 adult individuals and approximately 400 children across an 8,000-square-mile region who have intellectual and developmental disabilities and who qualify for services.
That includes intervention services for families with children younger than age 3 who are demonstrating a delay or disability, and providing educational support and other services for those individuals through their childhood and teen years.
Case workers go into families’ homes and instruct them on how to provide therapies throughout their everyday routines, as well as other types of counseling.
Once that person turns 18, they are evaluated for adult waiver services, as governed by state health and human services policies and procedures, Sims explained.
Adult services can range from intensive support for people with severe needs, often in a group home setting, to working with individuals to help them obtain housing, gain employment, get to and from medical and other appointments, and live as independently as possible.
MVDS also has a variety of day programs, providing recreational outings and work opportunities on site, including at the greenhouse on the campus in South Glenwood and the Mountain Valley Weavers studio in downtown Glenwood.
Adam Juul recently moved from greenhouse manager to assistant director of day programming. He has been working with Sims for going on 17 years now.
“Sara brings a strong demeanor, and really works hard to listen to all parties involved,” Juul said.
“I remember when I first started working at Mountain Valley and how supportive Sara was with my magnitude of questions,” he added. “I could tell instantly that she was a good leader due to the way her coworkers looked up to her.
“As I became more seasoned, my questions evolved into a more relaxed demeanor and we spent more time talking about each of our families and our kids learning how to ski and the trials and tribulations of raising a family.”
MVDS operates nine group homes that provide constant nursing care and other support, Sims explained. It also supports adult clients who are able to live on their own with less-intensive services in apartments that they either lease themselves or are owned by Mountain Valley and are leased to the individuals.
Some are married, some drive, some hold down full-time jobs … it runs the gamut, she said.
“We don’t pigeon-hole any of our individuals into a certain way of being or conceptualizing,” Sims said. “Everyone is definitely unique in their own way, and not all people are receiving the same services or need the same services.”
Likewise, there are those with developmental disabilities who haven’t been introduced to those support services, and who are often struggling through addiction, abuse and homelessness.
“We’ve seen those people come in and flourish and find fulfillment, and who have really gotten on the path of living the life they want and doing the things they want to do,” she said.
REWARDS IN MANY WAYS
Empowering people to overcome the obstacles that come with intellectual and physical challenges, whether it’s the individual or that person’s family, is one of the greatest rewards of the work, Sims said.
“Being able to speak up for him or herself, to making gains with something they were struggling with, to working with families of a child who is newly diagnosed and has no understanding of what the future might hold for that child.”
“We want them to know they don’t have to go through it alone, and that there are supports available and people to help,” she said. “We can’t change or fix the situation, but we can support people through the situation.”
Having a niece and a nephew in her family now who have developmental disabilities has given Sims a personal connection to what those families are dealing with, she said.
“Some people get into this job because of their personal experience,” Sims acknowledged. “I find it interesting that I originally got into this job without that personal experience, then it all came around.
“It really helps me to personalize it and apply that to my decision-making … ‘would I do this for my niece … and what would I say or do?’
“It’s a very grounding ingredient in the way we approach our supports.”
The gratification comes in different ways, from a simple “thank-you” in passing to gifts of hand-made crafts or baked goods, or a flower from the garden.
“The ones that are most heart-touching are the ones where someone will look you in the eye and say, ‘Hi Sara,’ and who really want to engage and remember you,” Sims said.
Mountain Valley is always working to increase the visibility of the people its serves in the community.
Recently, a group of staff and board members and other supporters of the organization have been meeting on a regular basis to reach out and find new ways for people with disabilities to contribute to the community.
“We work hard to promote efforts to teach people about voting, and to follow the laws and rules of our community, and to give back and be a contributing member of the community,” Sims said.
For its part, MVDS also appoints one of its clients to its own board of directors on a rotating basis.
“The people we employ as service providers do a phenomenal job of connecting with individuals in our services, and are trying to really connect with them … not just a client, but as a person,” she added.
In her own free time, Sims said she and her husband are focused on spending as much family time together as possible, and connecting with their own children and their activities.
She said she also enjoys cooking, hiking, reading, travel and spending time with the family pets.
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Pitkin County administrators are proposing a more than $142 million budget for 2020, which is about $6 million less than this year because of fewer construction projects and capital improvements.