Char Gentes is leaving Riverside Industries after 37 years
EASTHAMPTON – Over her nearly four decades career, Char Gentes has seen positive developments in the way society helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities lead rich, independent lives.
But things weren’t that “golden” early in their careers, before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. To illustrate this, Gentes, who will be retiring early next month after 37 years with Riverside Industries in Easthampton, recalls what was the opening of Golden Drive in Northampton. At the time, three people living at Belchertown State School were about to move to a residence on Golden Drive. They have faced backlash from parishioners who opposed this transition.
“The resistance was great. I remember going to the council meeting in Northampton and people were very angry and adamant about it. People shouted, ‘These people can’t live here,’ ”Gentes said. “You had never met these women before. I had only just met her. They were really calm and cute and probably in their thirties. But there was so much opposition that the Golden Drive house never opened. It took years before these women were found. “
A short time later, the ADA became law banning discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life, including workplaces, schools, transportation, and all public and private places open to the public.
Since then, according to Gentes, there has been much more integration of people with disabilities into communities. Between this and a movement to educate and raise awareness of people with intellectual disabilities, she said public perception and the field itself have come a long way.
“Things that happened then just don’t happen anymore. People move into the communities on the left and right. They live and belong in a community. They are seen for what they are and people work in the churches. They work in supermarkets and small businesses, ”she said. “That would never have happened 40 years ago when I started.”
Gentes dedicates 37 years to Riverside Industries, including the past 10 years as President and CEO of the agency, which operates a variety of programs from its Easthampton headquarters to help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities lead full lives.
Gentes’ career at Riverside began in 1981 after completing her Masters in Rehabilitation Counseling from Springfield College. In that first role, she worked as a property manager for Maple Street, the name of a house previously owned by the agency as it provided housing services. In less than a year she took on a position as a post-doctoral consultant and worked in this position for three years.
She also left Riverside for three years to work at Baroco Corp. to work, another organization that provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
From there, Gentes saw a position at Riverside, applied and was hired in 1987 as director of the agency’s recruitment agency. She also held positions as director of the elders program and special projects for the president and director of community relations and development.
Gentes said she was grateful to be part of a movement – not just in Easthampton but nationwide – that has helped people with intellectual and developmental disabilities integrate into society.
Early in her career, she remembered that people who used Riverside’s services showed sheer appreciation. Those institutionalized at Belchertown State School haven’t had the opportunity to make simple decisions on their own, she said. While the choice between a grilled cheese or a turkey sandwich doesn’t seem like a lot to most people these days, it has been pure joy for those who have never had the opportunity, she added.
“I think it’s nice to see how people gain rights – which they should have started with. Now they have opportunities for those privileges that we all have and take for granted every day, ”said Gentes. “With the support of the staff here, we’ve got people to play the guitar, get out of wheelchairs and walk, play the piano – or even those who have learned to make a cup of coffee or say their name to write. They work. There has been so much growth in the past 40 years. “
Still, the job was not without its challenges. As a private non-profit organization, it was sometimes difficult to find funding. However, the biggest challenge during Gentes’ tenure was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on Riverside.
The organization has evolved from a facility-based to a completely remote organization and is still in the process of being relocated. Riverside currently has 112 employees. In order to bring back all 264 customers, the agency has to hire 25 to 30 more employees, according to Gentes, which has proven to be a challenge.
When she took the baton to Lynn Ostrowski-Ireland, Ph.D. who was named Riverside’s new President and CEO in November, Gentes said she hopes the agency is well on its way to recruiting all of its clients for personal services.
Kathy Hall, Riverside’s chief executive officer, said Ostrowski-Ireland’s experience gave her close working relationships with businesses and lawmakers.
“We are all confident that Lynn has the extensive experience and leadership skills to lead Riverside into the next decade and beyond,” said Hall.
Ostrowski-Ireland was most recently Chief Operating Officer for Sisters for Providence Ministry Corp. based in Holyoke where she oversaw programs focused on helping the elders and the disadvantaged.
Prior to that, she was Chief Operating Officer at Viability Inc., based in Northampton. She has also worked for Health New England as the director of corporate responsibility and government affairs.
Meanwhile, Gentes is about to retire.
“I’m retiring happy and very fulfilled and it’s a great feeling,” she said. “I regret nothing.”
Emily Thurlow can be reached at [email protected]