‘A gentle hero’: Stavros director retires after 29 years 

  • Jim Kruidenier, left, outgoing executive director of the Stavros Center for Independent Living, greets Chris Palames of Northampton, a founding member and the first executive director of Stavros, at the start of a retirement luncheon for Kruidenier at the Log Cabin in Holyoke on Thursday, June 27, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jim Kruidenier, outgoing executive director of the Stavros Center for Independent Living, chats with Ann Shor, left, Director of Independent Living and Assistive Technology at the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, and June Sauvageau, CEO of the Northeast Independent Living Program, during his retirement luncheon at the Log Cabin in Holyoke on Thursday, June 27, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jim Kruidenier, the exuctive director at Stavros Center for Independent Living, is retiring 29 years. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Kruidenier, outgoing executive director of the Stavros Center for Independent Living, arrives for a retirement luncheon in his honor at the Log Cabin in Holyoke on Thursday, June 27, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Tringali, a former staff member and director of services at the Stavros Center for Independent Living, talks about interviewing Jim Kruidenier for the executive director job in 1990. Tringali spoke to the Gazette at a retirement luncheon given for Kruidenier at the Log Cabin in Holyoke on Thursday, June 27, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jim Kruidenier, outgoing executive director of the Stavros Center for Independent Living, arrives for a retirement luncheon in his honor at the Log Cabin in Holyoke on Thursday, June 27, 2019. STAFF PHOTOS / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Jim Kruidenier, the exuctive director at Stavros Center for Independent Living, is retiring 29 years. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jim Kruidenier, the exuctive director at Stavros Center for Independent Living, is retiring 29 years. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/28/2019 5:32:36 PM

AMHERST — Public advocacy has always come natural for Jim Kruidenier. Whether it was developing employment programs for Vietnam War veterans or helping secure low-income housing in Greenfield, Kruidenier has an impressive résumé in community organizing. 

Kruidenier even ran for mayor of Northampton in 1985, albeit unsuccessfully, following in the footsteps of his idol, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a former mayor of Burlington, Vermont. 

“I wanted to change the world,” he said.

Kruidenier’s opportunity to do that came in 1990 while he was working at the state Department of Mental Health. A newspaper advertisement for an open executive director position at the Stavros Center for Independent Living — an organization which at the time provided transitional services to about 300 disabled people in Amherst, Greenfield and Springfield — caught his attention. 

Kruidenier, who is hard of hearing and now wears a cochlear implant, had been to the old Stavros building on South East Street in Amherst, not to seek help with housing, medical equipment or health care, but to meet others with disabilities.

Now, 29 years later,  Kruidenier, 70, is retiring this week as executive director of Stavros, which now serves about 6,000 people with disabilities across western Massachusetts. His work helping people move from nursing homes to independent lives, he said, has been trying over the years but overwhelmingly rewarding. 

In his first few weeks as executive director, Kruidenier set a pace for his advocacy that he would maintain for the rest of his career.

“I didn’t really have time to think about ‘What’s this organization like?’ or anything along those lines. I just had to get moving,” he said.   

Kruidenier’s successor, Angelina Ramirez, said she was grateful for his mentorship and motivated to emulate his passion for helping others.

“He has a very caring spirit, and allows you to explore what is possible and pushes you to advocate for others,” said Ramirez, the director of development and community relations for Stavros. 

Stavros’ programs

Immediately after being hired, Kruidenier was placed in charge of a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The money, he decided, would go to enhancing Stavros’ personal care attendant (PCA) program, which allows disabled people to hire others to help with day-to-day activities.

With the money, Kruidenier transformed the PCA program to allow for volunteer surrogates — individuals who help disabled people manage their PCAs if they are unable — an accomplishment he believes is still unique to Stavros. Before Stavros began allowing volunteers in 1993, many disabled people did not have the funds to hire people who would help with administrative tasks, he said.

The move and extra funds helped Stavros expand the PCA program into low-income neighborhoods, Krudinier said. Before its expansion, around 90 percent of all the people Stavros served were white, he said. Now, around 45 percent are Latino and 15 percent of its clients are African American. 

The program’s expansion proved services such as the PCA program were needed not only in rural areas of the Pioneer Valley, he said, but also in urban centers such as Springfield and Holyoke. Among the many other services Stavros provides are counseling programs, medical equipment loan programs and outdoor recreation programs. 

“I think we’ve made significant progress in terms of being able to make sure that anyone with a disability out there, if they come to us, we will be able to give them some kind of services,” he said.

But even the PCA program still has work left to be done, he said. Much as Stavros dealt with an influx of Russian immigrants in the 1990s, the organization is dealing with a similar increase in services to immigrants from Sudan and the Middle East. Determining how to provide services to these communities is paramount, he said.

In 2003, Stavros began Home Sweet Home, a community project that builds ramps at homes for people in wheelchairs. Many people with disabilities, Kruidenier said, do not have the financial resources to take out low-interest loans to make their homes accessible. Since its beginning, the service has installed close to 1,000 ramps — 114 of which were built this year alone. 

“These ramps make living in the community possible for an awful lot of folks,” Kruidenier said.

Legal victories

Among Kruidenier’s lasting accomplishments are the multiple legal cases Stavros was involved in regarding the rights of disabled people.  

After the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990, this new law gave organizations like Stavros a legal basis from which  to advocate in the courts for the civil rights of disabled people. 

Even more, he said, a 1999 Supreme Court case, Olmstead v. L.C., ruled that states must provide people with disabilities the option for community  services instead of only institution-based assisted living such as nursing homes. This decision, Kruidenier said, was a watershed moment for Stavros’ advocacy. 

“You talk to anybody who is 70 or 80, or is in a wheelchair — if you’re asking them if they want to be in a nursing home, they will say no,” he said.

With the help of attorneys at the Disability Law Center and the Center for Public Representation, Stavros was the plaintiff in many disability cases in the early 2000s. 

Legal decisions including 2001’s  Hermanson v. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts gave persons 65 and over the ability to obtain and retain Medicaid eligibility and receive PCA services, he said. 

“The journey is going to be very long and arduous,” Kruidenier said of the legal work left to be done on behalf of people with disabilities. The roadway is still there.”

‘A gentle hero’

On Thursday afternoon, more than 200 people gathered at the Log Cabin event venue in Holyoke to celebrate Kruidenier’s retirement. Many shared stories about Kruidenier, who led Stavros from an organization of 25 employees and a $300,000 annual budget to one with 160 employees and a budget of $13 million.

Chris Palames, the founding member and first executive director of Stavros, said that even though his relationship with the organization had become “distant” over the years, his relationship with Kruidenier has remained close.

“He’s just done everything that’s been put on his plate effectively and well,” Palames said.

Another attendee, Lois Brown, is the director of the Home Sweet Home program at Stavros. Brown said Kruidenier had always been a supportive boss, taking the time out of his busy schedule to meet one-on-one with her when she needed him. 

“His kindness and humor and patience are just extraordinary,” Brown said. “I call him a gentle hero. He has everyone’s back with amazing compassion.”

Joseph Tringali was a staff member and former director of services who interviewed Kruidenier for the executive director job in 1990. He said Kruidenier’s “forward-looking” mentality was apparent during his first interview — and a reason why he got the job. 

“As far as an administrator, he’s an excellent role model for all of us. His intelligence, his patience and his ability to communicate has not only made a big difference in the organization but within all of the independent (living) centers,” Tringali said. 

Kruidenier said he doesn’t envision Stavros expanding beyond the Pioneer Valley. Focusing on providing for those with disabilities in a smaller community gives the organization much more flexibility, he said. 

Kruidenier said there are bureaucratic roadblocks that will continue to hinder Stavros’ mission. For example, state officials often are hesitant to spend state money for the expansion of PCA programs, he said.

“The tragedy with disability rights is that each right comes with a price tag,” he said. 

Keeping on top of changes in policy and holding elected officials accountable is a battle Stavros will always have to fight, he said. 

“There’s a balance, and so we will, as we always have, innovate and figure out ways to provide services in a more cost-effective way,” he said.

And for Angelina Ramirez, who has worked at Stavros since 2005, she said she’s excited but nervous to take over the work Kruidenier started. 

“When you have been mentored by someone like Jim and you have seen all of the things he’s done through the years, it’s like, ‘How can I step [into] such big shoes?’” Ramirez said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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