DUTCHESS COUNTY, N.Y. -- Neil Pollack came to Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg 15 years ago with an ambitious agenda and a can-do attitude.
He will retire at the end of this year with his vision fulfilled, and ready to hand off the responsibilities of the position executive director for the 92-year-old institution to his successor, Patrick Paul. He is Anderson’s current Chief Operating Officer.
Pollack will be honored at the Anderson Center for Autism’s annual gala on Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Grandview in Poughkeepsie. The event begins at 6 p.m. Click here for more information.
Pollack joined the Center at a critical period in the organization’s history. He laid the groundwork for a total revitalization at Anderson, whose mission centers on optimizing quality of life for people with autism and their families.
Anderson’s primary goal at the outset of his tenure was to provide basic life skills for people on the autism disorder spectrum. “We had seen people coming through our doors that did not have self-regulation and communication skills,’’ Pollack said. “They were not provided basic life skills that should have been taught. We wanted to be the one place that people could count on for that level of support. It requires a real system.”
Pollack, and the staff at Anderson set about defining that system. Among the first steps Pollack delivered was a Master Site Plan to build state-of-the-art facilities. Many of the buildings at the time of Pollack’s arrival were more than 70 years old and did not support the environmental needs of people with autism. With the backing of staff and support from donors, Anderson worked for more than a decade to build new and renovate campus homes, built new community adult homes, upgraded support service buildings, and added a recreation center and village center on the 150-acre campus.
There was more to Pollack’s initial goals. He also developed a technology plan and put the infrastructure in place to help people who had alternative placements outside of Anderson. “There were too many children being referred to Anderson,’’ Pollack said. “Many of them did not have really complicated issues. We thought they could benefit greatly from staying in the public education system. We partnered with a lot of districts in the Hudson Valley, and developed a consulting practice. To my knowledge, with each of the parties we’ve engaged with, I don’t recall a single person being referred to Anderson afterwards.”
Pollack said his proudest achievement at Anderson was building an educated staff that is firmly attuned to the needs of people on the autism spectrum. When he started, Anderson employed 300 workers, most of whom had limited college education. Anderson now has about 800 employees, most of whom have an average of approximately two years’ worth of college credits.
“They bring real value to the table,’’ Pollack said. “The education level of our employees exceeds most other not-for-profit agencies. It brings a really focused workforce that is dedicated to the mission of the organization and makes sure that people at Anderson are getting the best results.”
Pollack was the right person at the right time for Anderson. Before coming to Anderson, he worked with people with developmental disabilities. “I had a fascination with autism,’’ Pollack said. “I saw an agency that was eager to support one population. I thought it was a great opportunity to work with one group and find innovative ways to achieve real success.”
He also saw an opportunity to revitalize an institution many people thought was past its prime. “I saw it as a personal opportunity to sink my teeth into a project that others said couldn’t be turned around,’’ Pollack said.
Autism also seems to have become more prevalent among children in the past 16 years. According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 150 children were identified on the Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2000. In 2012, 1 in 68 children were on the autism spectrum.
“I’m not a scientist,’’ Pollack said. “My own theory is science will eventually find there’s some genetic predisposition to autism, and there are hundreds of potential environmental factors that contribute to it. We have a long way to go before science can figure out this puzzle. My view is that places like Anderson need to dive into the question of how to provide the best support for people who are diagnosed with autism.”
Pollack said while he found his work rewarding, it was also exhausting. He will miss the daily interaction with students, staff and parents. “I’ll miss looking out the window, seeing people walking by, smiling,’’ Pollack said. “I believe in a concept called ‘walking shoes.’ To anyone who walks into the programs, that’s where the action is. I’ll miss all the high fives, all the time I spent on tours and dinners with the people here. They are really special people.”
Click here for more information about the gala.