The J. Arthur Trudeau Memorial Center has lived through an evolution of how society views and accepts people with disabilities. Celebrating their 50th anniversary, they recognize their achievements as something that should be commemorated while they see the need to continue to break cultural barriers as this population is integrated into the workforce.
President and CEO Donald Armstrong has seen Trudeau flourish each year. Armstrong has been president for two years and on the board for 10 years. Prior to working at Trudeau, he spent 38 years working in corporate banking.
“I’ve always been interested in helping,” said Armstrong. His daughter, Beth, has been part of Trudeau since 1995, which subsequently always kept him involved.
J. Arthur Trudeau, founder of the Trudeau Center, and his wife Evelyn felt the community needed to provide services for children with disabilities. In 1964 it began with Evelyn making phone calls to parents inviting them to meet in the basement of Warwick Central Baptist Church to try and make their children’s lives better. As years passed, Trudeau expanded to day services and built a place where people sought a welcoming community. With the help of Trudeau’s close friend, Congressman John E. Fogarty helped develop plans and was an advocate for legislative action to help children with special needs. Senator Richard Patterson was also instrumental in paving the path for children with disabilities as executive director for 25 years. A former policeman in Providence and professional baseball player, Patterson was a powerful man with compassion. Egan said that the leadership at Trudeau has always continued to respond to people in need. He said Patterson, along with Trudeau, were always looking for a new task.
“There was a change in culture. In the beginning, children with disabilities were kept in private isolation, and parents didn’t know others who shared their same plate,” Egan said.
Armstrong said people that they now help used to be housed at Exeter’s Ladd School, which Armstrong said wasn’t much of a school but rather referred to as “custodial care.”
“Arthur and Evelyn thought we could do a lot more to help, and we have,” Armstrong said.
Fifty years later the Trudeau Center has 1,300 clients and 950 employees.
Armstrong is proud of the programs the center offers. The center works with families or individuals from before birth with their early intervention service following with their inclusive Crayon’s Early Care and Education service to offering activities for individuals in their elderly years. The center opened Pathways Strategic Teaching Center in 1998 that is dedicated to serving more than 70 children with autism and related disorders. The center operates 12 group homes throughout Kent County servicing 57 individuals. They also own five condos and provide services for 14 individuals living in their private apartments. Trudeau provides training and support with personal care and therapeutic services within specific programs.
Trudeau operates on a $25 million budget as a nonprofit organization.
Armstrong said that all employees received a five percent pay cut three years ago because of state agencies like the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals’ financial limitations. With that, the leaders of Trudeau are facing the realities of lack of funding for social agencies from both state and federal sources.
“In order to grow like we have been we need to look outside for funding like foundations, grants and individual donations,” said Egan. “Relying on federal money is not sufficient anymore in order to provide our services.”
Trudeau has restored two percent of the pay cuts.
Every year, Trudeau hosts its Keep the Dream Alive breakfast at the Crowne Plaza for fundraising, where Rhode Island businesses and families participate. Golf tournaments also help in raising center funds.
The Employment Concepts program, in its own separate building next to the main center, is where Armstrong would like the organization to grow. He said this kind of program embodies the foundation that Trudeau began with and continues to strive for. He believes that integrating people with disabilities and companies across the state helps both parties.
“People with disabilities 50 years ago didn’t get that opportunity,” said Armstrong. “It makes people feel good that they’re valued and that they get paychecks for contributing,”
Kyle Walters is one of many Trudeau success stories. A Trudeau client since 2009, Walters sought assistance finding a job. That same year Panera Bread, one of Trudeau’s partners, hired him. He works 25 hours a week and loves it each day. According to an informational pamphlet, Walter’s employer said, “Kyle brings life to the Warwick Panera. His energy is contagious and his sweet spirit puts everyone at ease.”
Armstrong remembered talking to Walters’ employer, who admittedly thought the restaurant was doing Walters a favor but said Trudeau and Walters were the ones who did Panera Bread a favor. Some of their other clients have worked at their jobs for eight to 17 years with similar feedback.
Egan said these kinds of success stories are what they are trying to achieve every day.
There are about 40 people in the employment program, but Armstrong and Egan want it to grow. They continue to seek more business to create partnerships. Currently, they work with Christmas Tree Shoppes, Panera Bread, Stop & Shop, Citizens Bank and the City of Cranston.
“I want the city to begin to employ our individuals,” said Armstrong.
The Trudeau Center expects positive changes in the future with the help of their staff.
“It’s a difficult job. They accept marginal pay and become family for these people,” said Egan.
Looking ahead, Armstrong said the staff is creative and excited to grow Trudeau’s services.
Although Trudeau has succeeded in providing the services they once envisioned, they continue to meet with parents and representatives who are concerned that their family member or client is active, outside in the community and developing to their full potential, said Armstrong.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary, the center has planned a grand party at the Quidnessett Country Club on Sept. 5 at 6 p.m. That night they will induct eight into their Hall of Fame, including retired Superior Court Justice John E. Orton II, former governor and mayor Philip W. Noel, former mayor Eugene J. McCaffrey Jr., former mayor Joseph W. Walsh, former mayor and Supreme Court justice Francis X. Flaherty, former mayor Charles D. Donovan, Governor and former mayor Lincoln D. Chafee and Mayor Scott Avedisian.
“Trudeau wouldn’t be where it was today without their help,” said Armstrong.
The celebration is by invitation only, but Egan expects 400 guests, among them donors, inductees, clients and staff. For ticket information, contact Alicia Fontes at 739-2700 ext. 222 or email firstname.lastname@example.org by Aug. 22.