As soon as Stacey Kubala, executive director of Southwinds Inc., walked into the room, she immediately greeted Hopey, Lisa and Michelle with a big smile. The developmentally disabled residents live together in a group home on Academy Avenue, supervised around the clock by Southwinds’ direct care staff, when they are not at jobs or participating in clubs. Kubala, who’s been with Southwinds for 30 years, first started her career with the South Hills area nonprofit in 1984, when it was just a year old. She worked as a substitute direct care team member, plugging scheduling holes for the three homes it operated at the time. And as the organization has grown, expanded its services and matured in its mission, serving 49 individuals in 14 group homes in the South Hills, Kubala has been there each step of the way.
It all began long before Kubala graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, or even began to think about her undergraduate degree in child development. Her sister Brenda, older by 10 years, is developmentally disabled.
“I didn’t know any different, she was just always there,” says Kubala. “My sister was just a part of the family.” And when others suggested separating Brenda, institutionalizing her or otherwise excluding her from normal life, Kubala and her family were appalled. A playground protector and advocate not just for her sister, Kubala recalls being the only student willing to help another classmate unhook his leg brace each time he wanted to stand up or sit down, something he couldn’t do himself. “I was the one sticking up for them, I was the one helping.” As she says this on the group home’s maroon couch, there isn’t even a whiff of condescension in her voice. It’s simply the way she grew up.
So when Kubala thinks back to her beginnings with Southwinds and where it’s led her now, she laughs a little as she says, “It was probably my destiny to end up in some kind of social work.” Her original part-time position in direct care led to a more permanent role, which transitioned into staff management, personnel training and eventually to her current position of executive director, which she’s held for the past 19 years. The secret to her longevity in the ever-fluxing nonprofit industry that often can’t hold onto its executive staff, let alone volunteers, is very much related to her experiences growing up with Brenda. When making decisions for Southwinds and the individuals it serves, she thinks, “If this was my sister, if this was my family, what would we expect from me?”
And the decisions are far from easy. Issues are as varied as the people who have them, as is often the case in social work, and require on-the-spot, informed and difficult decisions. Kubala’s rich history with the organization helps, though. “It was nice to start in [direct care] and nice to have held so many different positions through the agency,” she says. “It helps me now to really understand what happens here in the evenings and what’s going on. So when staff are saying, ‘this is difficult’ or ‘we need help with that,’ I can understand what they’re talking about and why.” Kubala also enjoys the variety of her position. “Every little decision matters in the end and I like being a part of that.”
She’s not just part of the behind the scenes work at Southwinds, but also plays an obvious role in the lives of Hopey and other developmentally disabled individuals. As Kubala begins to leave, Hopey, a smiling, short woman with grey hair, teenage-style clothes and an eye patch from recent surgery, insists on giving her a big hug, and they stand chatting for another 10 minutes. Hopey is one of the individuals whose life has changed because of Southwinds. A few years ago she lost her sight and had to be led by hand around her group home by staff, but recently had cataract and lens transplant surgery, which enabled her to see again. Hopey says matter-of-factly to Kubala, “You look just like I thought you would.” Southwinds’ mission is to promote individuals’ independence, dignity and equality, and the way Kubala treats Hopey with respect, kindness and care is just one of the small interactions that make the organization so powerful in developmentally disabled residents’ lives.
Those small interactions are what keep Kubala smiling, too, and she describes her routine with one of Southwinds’ individuals, which is indicative of many small moments she has with others. When he comes into the office, Kubala has to turn her chair the other way so he can’t see her face, and the routine begins. He sneaks up behind her, places his hands on her eyes, and lets her filter through the “guesses” of who is behind her. “Is it Santa Claus?” “No!” “Is it Mario Lemieux?” “No!” “Is it… Philip?” “Yeah!” And Philip gives her a hug, answers that he is doing well and then quickly turns around and scampers out of the office. As Kubala reenacts the scene, her face lights up and she laughs, “It has to go in this order every time or else it’s wrong.”
Reflecting on her 30 years with Southwinds, Kubala says, “I’ve known Lisa [an individual who lives in the Academy House] longer than I’ve known my husband. I’ve known many of the folks here, both individuals and staff, longer than I’ve known my husband and my kids. And that’s kind of weird.”
Pointing to Lisa, who is now sharing the couch with Kubala, she says, “These guys really are like my friends and my family.” More impressive than just Kubala’s track record is the cumulative managing staff of Southwinds, Inc., “That’s kind of weird to be able to say that I’ve known my director of residential services, director of client services and human resources director for 30 years. That’s kind of cool because, although we interact as professionals, we look at each other and we’ve grown up together.” Other staff may not have been there for 30 years, but many of the others have been around for 20, showing true dedication to their mission. That’s made a big difference, according to Kubala. “All of us having been here so long is what’s made us stay successful.
“This life, even if it’s not perfect, even if there are stains on the wall, this is still a life and this is a life worth living for individuals,” she says. “They’re not sitting in an institution, lined up in chairs around the wall staring at a TV; they go to work, they go out, Michelle belongs to the choir, they go bowling and they do all kinds of things out in the community.”
“Is that worth it?” she asks. “Hell yeah, that’s worth it.”