July 2, 2018 | Greenwich Sentinel

President and CEO of Abilis, Dennis W. Perry retired at the end of June, and during his three years at the helm, Perry has invigorated the organization’s fiscal health, culminating in a broader, greater outreach of services to people living with special needs.

Abilis is a non-profit organization supporting more than 700 individuals in Fairfield County with developmental disabilities from birth, throughout their lives, and has endured a reputation for providing individualized, high-quality care over the past 65 years. 

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 Services offered include early intervention programs, robust social and recreational activities, independent residential living, and job training and employment services through its Life Skills program, one key area that Perry has fully expanded upon during his tenure.

Perry, who had a lucrative career in the for-profit world both domestically and abroad, with companies such as Hagemeyer Trading and Bulova, came across Abilis in 2013, while on a personal quest to find a welcoming place for his son Ross, who has developmental disabilities.    Ross, who was born healthy, contracted meningitis when he was ten weeks old, forever changing the course of his life.

Perry said that he first learned about Abilis and its services when he moved back to New Canaan after ten years in Hong Kong, and he knew very quickly that the organization was “the best kept gem that more parents needed to know about.” He joined the Abilis board of directors in 2014, where he played an integral part of their strategic planning process.

“Families need to know that there are great resources out there,” said Perry.  “They need to block and tackle their way through it, and never give up hope.” In fact, one of Perry’s key initiatives as CEO has been the launch of a new signature service called the Abilis Individual Life Plan, which works closely with families to plot out a future course for their loved one, providing much needed guidance and support that can ensure the best path of success. “I’m as proud of Ross today as I am of my other two children,” said Perry, whose now adult son takes part in Alibis’ day program and resides in one of their three-person residential homes in Stamford.

It is no surprise that Perry was asked to lead the group after serving on the board for just one year, considering his inclusive leadership style and a stellar management track record, combined with his impassioned, heartfelt commitment for helping those with disabilities. After a few years as CEO, Perry’s accomplishments have been significant.

Perry has increased the scope and geographic range of its services offered throughout Fairfield Country, and has increased their state funding, something which has become more difficult to secure over the years. In addition, while Abilis still relies heavily on state funds, Perry has developed strategic partnerships with the local boards of education, whereby those funds in turn provide an extension of services for special needs high schoolers, such as enrollment in the Life Skills program, a transitional program enabling young adults to enter their communities through jobs (and paychecks). This has resulted in more independence and fulfillment for Abilis members.

The Life Skills program now reaches Greenwich, Stamford, Westport and Wilton, providing competitive employment for 100 people, up from 20 before Perry was CEO. In addition, Perry has increased the number of Abilis businesses, in particular, Abilis Gardens and Gifts, located at the Greenwich headquarters at 50 Glenville St., which serves as a job-training site where members take great pride in their work both at the greenhouse and the small gift shop creating and selling beautifully hand-made scented candles and soaps.

“We don’t look at their disabilities, we look at their abilities, and cultivate them; that’s what the Life Skills program is all about,” said Perry.

“We want them to be part of the community, have a sense of contribution, and a sense of self, which truly changes one’s pride.” Other active job sites in the area include supermarkets, property maintenance, hospitals and nursing homes. 

When asked whether companies and organizations in the county are amenable to hiring individuals with cognitive challenges, he says, “Yes, I think we as professionals who are advocating for this population have had something to do with that, as well as the federal government’s insistence that this population get free and appropriate public education. A lot of things have turned in a favorable way for this community.”

Also, during his tenure, Perry has increased the number of residential homes available to constituents, now totaling 34, half located in Greenwich and the other half located in Stamford, which Perry says is more affordable. While Perry’s plans have secured the organization’s financial footing, another focus during his tenure was rebranding the organization and ensuring widespread recognition of all that they offer. After its rebranding campaign, which included a comprehensive digital media program, Abilis enjoyed a 66% increase in awareness of its core competencies, manifesting in more participants as well as an added increase in private funding.

In addition to his programmatic focus, Perry has led the effort to improve the safety of all Abilis buildings, including the installation of new systems, modernizing the Abilis vans that provide community access, as well as the installation of new software designed to create operational efficiencies.

“Dennis has been a very motivating and effective leader for Abilis,” said Alonso Martinez, chairman of the Abilis Board. “With Dennis at the helm, we have created stronger financial and operational management, and we are committed as a board to continue on this path.” A board-led executive search is currently underway. When asked what Perry will miss most about his tenure at Abilis, he paused, and then smiled broadly. “The people we serve are our treasures,” said Perry. “They are the nicest, most grateful people you’ll ever want to know. And, the staff here are truly remarkable.” Perry says he is very much looking forward to retirement with his wife. They will spend the summer in Nantucket and then look to spend more of their time in Florida with family and friends.

“This has just been the absolute best thing I’ve done, I’m so proud, and I know that Ross, my motivation, is in very good hands here,” said Perry through an assured smile. “And now he can fly by himself to come and see us.”