In so many ways, Len Weiser’s background makes him the perfect choice to take over the reins at the nonprofit Life’s WORC, which is headquartered in Garden City with services provided across Long Island, Queens and Manhattan.
Fifty years ago, Life’s WORC set the standard for the group home model of care for people with special needs, taking this population from warehousing institutions and placing them in family-like homes in a community-based setting. Today, it is a leader in providing residential and day services, vocational training, employment services, special education support services, and family and recreational programs for people with different intellectual and developmental abilities and autism.
Weiser started his career as a direct support professional (DSP) and a residential home manager. He eventually trained to become a nurse and then an administrator of nursing. He was chief executive of various facilities and, most recently, chief executive of a nonprofit senior housing and healthcare organization outside Philadelphia.
“I’ve come full circle,” Weiser says of being chief executive officer at Life’s WORC, an organization that supervises group homes for those with special needs and which has a staff of DSPs. “I’m taking what I’ve learned in my career to an organization that innovates in the industry.”
Since he started in October, Weiser has spent time getting out to visit some of the nearly 60 group homes and day hab programs offered by Life’s WORC. “I believe I have an understanding of what our DSP and residential manager roles require,” Weiser says of his varied background, adding that he studied nursing after attending doctors’ appointments with people supported and wanted to know more about clinical areas so he could better support those in his care.
Weiser, who has three adult sons, is married to David (an attorney), was raised by his mother, and guided by the nurturing presence of his grandmother. Weiser states his mother and grandmother instilled in him a deep-rooted commitment to the values of compassion and caregiving. This commitment extended to older adults, a group he was particularly drawn to, including his grandmother, the youngest of 12 children.
Reflecting on the influence of his upbringing, Weiser recalls, “Caring for others and helping them lead productive lives is a source of purpose for me.” He draws a direct connection between the time he spent with his grandmother and later interactions with people he has served.
“When I decided to leave my role in residential living after becoming a nurse, I never envisioned myself in a hospital setting, so I chose to work in a nursing home where I could build relationships,” he explains.
He said he wanted to instill into those working in the facility the concept of acting more like they were working in someone’s home and less like in a care facility. He wanted people to understand that, yes, you have tasks to perform, but not to let the performing of tasks overwhelm the attention given to the residents or overshadow the daily simple pleasures that he wanted the residents to experience, much as they would if they were aging in their own homes.
“What we found is that when you make it more of a home setting and support residents with enjoying the things they enjoy doing and direct their own lives, they eat better, sleep better and are healthier,” he says. “Things were better in many ways.”
Weiser does not like the use of the term “behavioral” issues with regard to people being supported because these “behaviors” are really how the individuals are trying to communicate with you.
“When you understand that, it makes it easier to address the situation at hand,” he says.
This attitude is particularly useful at Life’s WORC, which prides itself on its innovative approaches. He acknowledges that he wants to take the time to learn more about the inner workings of the organization instead of just coming in and changing things. He is taking things slowly and getting to know the system and the team’s needs, the people supported and their families.
“I think that the public may have some outdated notions about our people supported and our services,” says Weiser, who says the emphasis should be on individuals with different abilities living their best lives. For example, with medical advances, people supported are living longer, and accommodations must be made for their housing and additional care needs as they age. The focus must evolve with the needs of the people supported.
“We have a lot going right in the industry, but we have to remind people that we need to take care of the people who are caring for the people we care about,” he says. One of Weiser’s tasks is to make sure Life’s WORC hires the best staff possible, which becomes more difficult with salary issues that contribute to staffing shortages that loom over the industry. Weiser says he sees staffing as one of the most significant and most immediate challenges of the industry.
“When caregiving professionals earn a living wage, the people supported live better, ultimately impacting community services such as the health care system, reducing costs there,” he says. “So, why not reallocate that money to the salaries of those supporting members of our communities?” He also believes employers must take a more modern, holistic approach toward their workers.
“We have to always remember that we are in the people business, but we are in business,” Weiser explains. “If we want to keep being able to serve the people who are the reason we all are here, we have to pay attention to the business side as well. We’re a nonprofit, which means we lead from the heart, but we have to do it with a business brain. We must continually evolve and grow. That was one of the reasons I wanted to come to Life’s WORC because I saw that the people here had a passion for the people they served and a commitment to do great things.”
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.
Life’s WORC was founded by Victoria Schneps, the founder of Schneps Media, the parent company of Dan’s Papers. Visit lifesworc.org to learn more about Life’s WORC.