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Oak Hill President and CEO Barry Simon spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about opportunities to work in the healthcare field and the benefits of working at Oak Hill. 

NAN PRICE: In what ways has the pandemic created new opportunities for Oak Hill?

BARRY SIMON: Certainly, there have been plenty of challenges with the pandemic, but now that things are starting to reopen and people are operating differently, there are a lot of opportunities. I see it as an exciting time.

A lot of attention has been paid to healthcare because of COVID-19. It’s also created more awareness of burnout and the hard work done by healthcare workers, creating a lot of investment in community healthcare.

For Oak Hill, we’re situated in a good place. So much of our programming and the way we provide services is focused on things that worked well before. But we’re also innovating. For example, some of the new federal guidelines impacting the way states operate their Medicaid is helping us lean into the things we strongly believe in.

At the core of all our programming and the career opportunities is the goal of helping people be independent in the community. While sticking with our core values, there have been ways we’ve tweaked or even changed how we provide community-oriented specialty healthcare, education, and support services. Our programs are all focused on how to help people receive services in a different, easier, more efficient way.

Because of that, our programming creates opportunities for those who want to do direct care or those who have been in school for nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, or social work. There are a lot of ways people can be providing that care in the community. And for people who seeking those opportunities, Oak Hill is a great place to be.

NAN: What makes Oak Hill such a great place to be for employees?

BARRY: It’s always been important to me to allow people to have good work life balance. That involves offering reasonable salaries and helping people feel valued. We’re a nonprofit, so we can’t offer things like profit sharing or stock options.

With the attention that has been paid to healthcare in general, we did our own salary analysis and raised a lot of our wages. Oak Hill offers competitive salaries, excellent medical and retirement benefits, vacation time, and a learning environment where people receive professional education.

Our internal professional development team has formed collaborations with many of local colleges for people who are early in their careers. We’ve created career ladders with tuition reimbursement, so people can earn their licensed practical nurse and registered nursing degrees. We have a management track that helps people advance, so people can come in with a high school degree and earn a direct support professional role.

We’ve set up cohort classes with Goodwin University, Capital Community College, and the University of Saint Joseph that provide opportunity for schooling, but also mentoring opportunities. A lot of the schools will send students here to get their intern experiences.

If you love caring for people, I always say there’s no better place than Oak Hill, because you can practice your craft in a way that you don’t get an opportunity to do at many other places. We’re a specialty healthcare and a special education institution—that’s at the heart of what we do. We’ve been here for 128 years and that mission has run through us for that entire time.

NAN: Tell us a little about that evolution.

BARRY: Oak Hill started in 1893 as one woman’s idea as an orphanage for kids who were blind. Emily Wells Foster spent a lot of time in the community. Her vision was that if you help blind kids learn independent living skills you help them to get into the community. She was also helping the community by having blind kids enjoy being citizens in the community.

That mission from 128 years ago is still our mission today. We’ve built an incredible continuum of care. Whether you’re invested in education for kids with intellectual developmental disabilities or behavioral issues; you care about assistive technology; you’re interested in community programs for people living in group homes or in-home supports; or you want to get involved with mental health, substance abuse, and recreational services, Oak Hill does all these different things. No matter what kinds of services somebody needs, there’s some place at Oak Hill. There’s no wrong door to get into services or a career.

NAN: Oak Hill has experienced a lot of evolution and continues to create opportunities for new employees. You also have many employees who have spent decades of their career with the organization. Why do you think that is?

BARRY: Oak Hill has a lot of employees who have been here for more than 30 years. And, 30 years ago we had to evolve and make a major transition from being an institution to becoming a community-oriented provider. The employees who were here 30 years ago were obviously much younger at that time. They were all about new, innovative programming. It got built into their professional DNA that Oak Hill was about transition, meeting the needs of the people, and creating new and innovative services.

It’s incredible to have people here who went through that transition and are still here now. They’re seeing yet one more transition happening where federal changes in home- and community-based services are pushing integrated community services even further.

So, Oak Hill is evolving once again to create quasi-like VNA-ish services for people with intellectual developmental disabilities and issues with mental health and substance abuse, where the services are more community-oriented and more at-home services with supported and supervised apartments that enable people to receive services in a central place, but also live independently.

Our staff is excited about those kinds of services. Even those who have been here for 30 years—these employees embrace our mission and feel so positive and empowered by it that they’re inspired by the new things we’re doing. It’s part of being at Oak Hill—we’re constantly evolving.

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Photo: Oak Hill President and CEO Barry Simon at Oak Hill’s 2019 Annual Golf Classic with several Oak Hill program participants.