By JOHN HOWELL
“People ask me when I’m going to retire,” says Marilyn Serra.
“What would I do? I’ve got the best job,” answers Serra, the president and CEO of the Sargent Rehabilitation Center. Serra has been a guiding force at the center for almost half of its 101-year span of serving children and adults with disabilities.
That accomplishment was lauded Friday night by Mayor Joseph Solomon at a celebration at the center’s campus on Quaker Lane and Major Potter Road. Solomon said the center’s “reputation precedes it.”
“So many people’s lives have been touched – whether directly or indirectly – by Sargent and the work you provide,” he said. Solomon said the center’s program benefits more than 2,000 Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut clients and families every year.
“As I look at the investment you’ve made in creating this state-of-the-art facility, I am inspired and in awe of the services and quality of life you have successfully provided to all those you have treated,” he said.
Founded in 1917 by 25 women as the Providence School of Lip-Reading, the center has evolved as a leader in the field of rehabilitation of those suffering from brain injury, stroke and autism spectrum disorder. The center is also recognized for its role in health care and education.
Solomon listed the center’s progression from the 1950s, when its focus was primarily on hearing disabilities, to the 1960s when it opened an outpatient clinic for adult stroke victims, a language and speech preschool center in 1969, followed by a comprehensive day school program for older children in 1975.
The center moved to Warwick in 1996. It has grown from the original two buildings, with the opening of the resource center in 2013 and capital improvements to accommodate a growing clientele.
Serra has been there to help guide it all. While that role was recognized she chose not to address Friday’s celebration, preferring that board chairman Russ Hahn make remarks.
Hahn outlined Sargent’s history – the center is named for ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Francis Sargent, who developed services for children and adults – and how it has managed growth without taking on burdensome debt. He reported that $1.2 million in upgrades and state-of-the-art improvements has been accomplished without financing.
“We have learned to do what you do well, to marshal our experience to meet evolving needs and manage expenses in order not to succumb to debt. We learned that we must always be responsible to the children and adults we serve,” he said.
Growth and new ways to help those with disabilities is also a part of Sargent.
In a conversation following a champagne toast to Sargent’s 101 years, Serra excitedly described a sailing program launched with Sail Newport this past summer. She described the excitement of participants and how they plan to grow the program next summer.
For many, she said, this was the first time they had been in a boat, no less sailing.
But the indelible memory is of one boy who on the trip to Newport was speechless when they crossed the Pell-Newport Bridge. He had never been over such a bridge and suddenly a new world was opening for him.
Discovery and overcoming disabilities is what the center has been doing for more than a century.