Palatine-area agencies for people with disabilities consider merger

Two Palatine-area agencies dedicated to assisting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are considering the possibility of a merger next year.

But representatives of both Little City Foundation and Countryside Association for People with Disabilities said Friday that such a merger won't happen unless it is in the best interest of each agency.

"We want everyone to know this is being done for the right reasons," Little City Executive Director Shawn Jeffers said.

Little City provides a variety of services for people at every stage of life - including children's programs, adoption and foster care services, housing and physical therapy.

Countryside Association is more specifically focused on providing job opportunities for adults - both in mainstream positions as well as in sheltered workshops in which it partners with companies. But it also had been providing adult respite care services that are currently suspended due to shortfalls in state funding, said Heather Ritter, president of the board of directors.

While such external pressures are playing a role in both agencies' consideration of a merger, the June 2014 retirement of longtime Countryside Association Executive Director Wayne Kulick may make the timing particularly right, both groups said.

Jeffers said he and Kulick had discussed such an idea on and off for years. But the positive aspects of moving forward have become more apparent during the discussions of the past year or more.

"With each encounter, it just seems to pick up traction," Jeffers said. "The closer we get to one another, there's a stronger feeling of trust."

Little City is, by far, the larger organization, with an annual budget of $27 million, compared to Countryside's approximately $7 million, Jeffers said.

A reason for caution is both organizations want to retain their identities, said Ritter, who is also director of human resources for the Daily Herald.

Jeffers stressed that it's not too late for the parties to walk away if a merger can't be proven to be mutually beneficial.

"Countryside isn't coming to us out of desperation," he said. "The client base of Countryside very much complements the people we serve."

Though both are based in Palatine, Little City's clients stretch from Chicago's South suburbs up to the Wisconsin border while Countryside has largely served the Northwest suburban corridor, Jeffers said.

Fears that need to be addressed before a merger can be approved is the effect it would have on programs and personnel. While there is expected to be a place for about all the current staff members, that's not guaranteed, Jeffers said. Likewise, the impact on facilities must be investigated, he said.

Ritter said one Countryside program that's faced mounting external pressure is its sheltered workshops. Such programs are in jeopardy across the country because some have erroneously come to think of these as "glorified sweatshops," she said.

But these jobs and their paychecks give their participants a sense of purpose they're unlikely to find anywhere else, Ritter said. The members of these programs don't have the cognitive abilities to work at the speed required of a mainstream job, but the ability to put parts together for companies like Abbott Labs means the world to their self-esteem, she said.

As far as the timing of a decision, Ritter estimated it is still several months away. If both parties do agree to move forward, the merger could probably be completed before the end of 2016, she said.

  Countryside Association for People with Disabilities in unincorporated Ela Township is considering merging with Little City Foundation in Palatine. Mark Welsh/
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