Heroes of the COVID Crisis
As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing Patrick Paul, CEO and Executive Director of Anderson Center for Autism.
Patrick Paul, the effective, compassionate CEO and Executive Director of Anderson Center for Autism, embodies the concepts of “visionary leadership”. His ability to identify and harness the talents, strengths, and passions of others is evident not only in the success stories of his executive team, staff, and boards, but most importantly, in the success stories of the children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder for whom he works tirelessly every day.
With almost two decades of experience at Anderson, first as CFO and then COO before being appointed CEO in 2017, Patrick Paul has helped position the nonprofit organization to become highly regarded in the field — locally, regionally, and globally. Under Patrick’s leadership, Anderson has trained fellows from dozens of countries around the world, built collaborative partnerships with colleges, medical professionals, and stakeholders, created supportive programs for families, coordinated Autism Supportive Environment trainings for businesses and municipalities, and introduced a first-of-its-kind system called The San Martin Scale to individuals and families who have long wanted to measure quality of life for those impacted by autism. The aforementioned are just a sampling of accomplishments that are a result of Patrick’s ability to engage his staff, board, and community; he inspires all who work with him to continue to build on Anderson’s century-long commitment to supporting people with disabilities.
Before joining the team at Anderson Center for Autism, Patrick was a Trooper for the New York State Police and also worked in banking, investment management, and public accounting. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Community and Human Services (SUNY Empire State College) with a concentration in criminal justice and a Bachelor’s degree in accounting (SUNY College at New Paltz). Partick is also a Certified Public Accountant (CPA).
In addition to his role as CEO and Executive Director at Anderson, Patrick actively serves as part of the Autism Spectrum Advisory Board, Mohonk Preserve Board, M&T Bank Advisory Board, and Tongore Pines Development Corporation. He was also formerly involved with RUPCO, Ulster County Development Corporation, and served as Board President of Unison Arts.
He has successfully navigated a global health crisis in recent months, leading his team with heart and a sense of shared humanity as they carried out their mission of optimizing the quality of life for people with autism.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?
I had a very happy childhood in Poughkeepsie, New York, a historic town located just minutes from Staatsburg, where I work as CEO/Executive Director today at Anderson Center for Autism. My parents were both employed by IBM; my dad was an engineer. I’m the youngest of three, with one older brother and one older sister, and I graduated from Spackenkill High School. My younger days really represent the quintessential Hudson Valley experience for kids — we spent our free time riding bikes, skateboarding, picking berries, building tree forts — it was a lot of fun. I even had a dirt bike, which I loved!
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I love all books on economics, history, and war. I try to read 2 books every week, often applying what I’ve learned about how the great leaders handled challenges, along with all that I’ve discovered about history and behavioral economics, to help me lead our team at Anderson Center for Autism. One book that had an especially significant impact on me is THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, by William Shirer. As a war and history buff, this book was right up my alley. I think that because it was focused on World War II, giving us a glimpse into what it was like inside Nazi Germany, a reader can see what didn’t work, what did work, and the importance of really trying to gain insight into the psychology of leaders. It was so on target and very illuminating, reminding us of the strength of our institutions even when they don’t seem to be strong or resilient.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I’d have to go with Winston Churchill’s quote, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” This was especially helpful in recent months as we navigated a global health crisis and needed to find ways to innovate, improve our services, and move things forward in the face of tremendous challenges. We can often learn and grow the most when we are in crisis, with opportunities to do things we’ve never done before. My team will tell you that they hear me share that quote very frequently!
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
As an organization who’s been around for nearly a century, we provide educational, residential, and vocational services to people with autism, with a mission of optimizing their quality of life. We work to address a very significant need — for our community, for the human services industry as a whole, and most importantly, for the children and adults, along with their families, whose lives are impacted by autism (Centers for Disease Control noted that 1 in 54 are diagnosed). Every day, we need to work to keep them safe and healthy, and this pandemic made that work even more important. Our residents are in our care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and in addition to doing all we can to support their well-being, we also provide support to their families. The loved ones of those we serve, who were unable to see their family members due to Covid-related restrictions, needed to feel confident that we had our processes and management in place to ensure safety. We activated crisis plans, established safety protocols, figured out how to provide residents and students with continued education and opportunities to communicate with their families using technology, and we also embraced the opportunity to launch telehealth services. In addition, we provided crisis services to the community and helped our County (Dutchess) provide resources to families who have individuals with special needs that were unable to attend regular school or day-hab programs. We wanted to help support them at home and help ensure that all who get special education in our area, regardless of whether they are students at Anderson, have what they needed to continue to grow and develop despite the school closures. Our team at Anderson Center for Autism really stepped up to the plate and put their minds and hearts to work for people with special needs; I couldn’t be prouder of them.
In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?
A hero steps in even when they know there’s a risk; a hero doesn’t let concerns about him or herself outweigh the concerns felt for others, and does what he or she can to address the needs of others. Here at Anderson, I’ve had the benefit of seeing selfless heroes at work every day, and they became even more heroic to me and to our families throughout recent months as we all all endured the hardships of the pandemic. The heroes were the people who stayed with the children and adults even though they were at risk themselves. They wanted to provide essential care, and to ensure that our residents knew that they are loved and safe. They took on incredible risks to support some of our most vulnerable people, and they did it because they felt it was important to provide that support, even when they knew they’d be safer in their own homes. They were completely self-sacrificing, maintaining the relationships at their own peril — to me, that’s what being a hero is all about — taking a risk for the betterment of others or the greater good. We have so many on staff — our direct support professionals, those who prepare meals, our teachers, our therapists, our cleaning and facilities team, our administrative team; every person made a contribution and made a difference, and continues to do so. I am in awe of each and every one of them — especially those who didn’t even go home to their own families for weeks at a time so that they could cover night shifts at Anderson or quarantine with the residents here to keep them healthy. It’s just completely inspiring.
In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.
Heroes are selfless, humble, reliable, resilient, and lead with their hearts. We have countless examples of heroism here at Anderson. I’d say that the biggest examples were seen in the direct support professionals who, upon learning of the virus, were immediately concerned about what they could do to help. It was ironic, because we wondered if people would show up, and if we’d have enough staff to cover the needs for our children and adult residences, and they all showed up! They did it out of love for their work, out of a desire to live beyond their own needs, out of dedication and care for those we serve; they were strong, resilient, and never sought any credit. They just did the right thing for people with autism who needed them in a bigger way than ever before. And they did it with heart. Some of our team members stayed with people who were ill, even though they knew it put them at risk and they could bring the illness back to their own families. Some stayed in hotel rooms, taking time from their personal lives to ensure that they kept everyone safe. They all showed up. They are all heroes, and are all awe-inspiring.
If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?
It’s a deeper understanding that we all have so much to give to others in time of need, and we need to do what we can to be of help. It’s knowing that there’s something they can do in the moment that can make a huge difference for someone else or some group of people. They’re scared, they’re concerned, but if they don’t do it, they won’t be happy with themselves; they just know intuitively that they need to put others first and do the right thing, no matter what risk presents itself.
What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?
The expected onset of Covid got us up and ready to go — we knew it was coming, but of course we didn’t know how bad it would be. We weren’t getting good information from our oversight organizations, so we had to improvise and come up with our own plans. We had to think about every detail when it came to caring for and educating our children and adults with autism, many of whom are nonverbal, and how we’d help them stay connected to their families. We also had to figure out how to keep our staff safe and healthy, and keep our organization financially strong. We knew our plans had to be dynamic, as we’d need to change as new challenges would inevitably reveal themselves. We pivoted and shifted priorities along the way; it took us about a month to get to a rock-solid place as far as what we were doing. Since that time, we’ve been looking for continual improvement to our response. I realized early on that we need to be willing to keep self-evaluating, change the things that need to be changed, and understand that we can’t have a square peg fit into a round hole — we just need to change the peg.
As far as heroic action needing to be taken, we realized this right away. We had a good sense that this was a historic moment in time and we had to rise to new levels as an organization and as individuals.We started to collect PPE in January, 2020 because of what we were seeing in other parts of the world, already concerned about the possibility that it could hit Anderson Center for Autism. We thought we had collected a lot of PPE but it wasn’t anything close to what we needed — we were purchasing all along and continued to purchase and continue now to protect the future. And that was just one of many, many steps we had to take where we discovered we needed to do even more than we thought we would. Today, we feel like we’re in a good place, but it took heroism from every nook and cranny of our organization — people making sacrifices and putting their full energy into their work — for us to get there.
Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?
The late Senator and Veteran John McCain is a modern-day hero. He never took the easy way out; he always stood up for his principles even if it meant going against his party or commonly held beliefs. He’s truly one of the greatest American heroes who ever existed — a public servant who understood the meaning of living in service to others, no matter what sacrifices he had to make.
Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?
One of my biggest fears would be that one of our children or adults or staff becomes significantly impacted or dies. That’s a real fear. I feel responsible for everyone; if that happened, I’d feel responsible — not in the sense that we didn’t do enough — but that they’re all in my care — the individuals and staff — and I’d be left wondering, was there something more we could have done? Another procedure we could have developed? That’s the ultimate situation that would be impactful for me. It would be a tragedy for all of us at Anderson, and of course for the family of someone who falls ill or passes away.
Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?
I think people are resilient — the vaccine is on its way and will hopefully be effective and safe. I think that people will come together at some point and move on to better times — the future gives me hope!
What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?
The behaviors that are great are illustrated through the people who realized what needed to get done and they went out and got it done. We mobilized as an organization — the majority of people knew that this is what we’re here to do — optimize the quality of life for people with autism, no matter what the circumstances. This is an unusual situation, and our colleagues did what they needed to do — everyone from maintenance and facilities and food service to teachers and therapists and direct support professionals — they just got up and did it. It was scary and concerning and things were changing all the time, but everyone knew that they needed to stay inspired by our shared mission, and that we’d just have to pivot as we went. And we had a wonderful circle of support; the families of those we serve used all their capital to help us out, the community donated PPE, and our volunteers and donors worked hard to make sure we were as secure as possible too.
The disappointing behavior — which is always concerning — occurs when sometimes people individualize these things and they look at their particular circumstance and overlook the needs of the greater good. This doesn’t happen often — maybe one person out of 800 might over dramatize situations or responses to situations, and try to incite others. You’ve always got some personalities who can make things unnecessarily crazy or chaotic when they don’t have to be. As leaders, we have to rein that kind of behavior in and make sure they don’t negatively influence our ability to fulfill our responsibilities. We have to address it immediately, help them calm down and understand that nothing comes from creating an environment where people are petrified, scared, or experiencing some kind of hysteria. We have to remind people that while we’re all scared, we cannot create a movement that is negative. We have work to do. This is very unusual on our team, though; most everyone has been overwhelmingly positive and really embraced the opportunity to serve at an entirely new level. I have to wonder if that culture comes from the fact that many of our team members have been public servants. We have some who have served in the military; I was a first responder as a police officer. We have someone on our team who was involved with 9/11. There are several people who have been put in harm’s way in the past, and lead by example by just doing what they need to do to protect the health and safety of those we serve, because they’ve done it before and know that it’s just what you do. It’s not light; this is serious stuff, we’re asking a lot of our team — but those who reacted the most quickly and with the most calm and were able to set up systems and make decisions seem to be those who just have the sense of our shared responsibility to humanity, our mission, and realize that not all decisions will be right, but that you make the best ones you can and you get your teams engaged to collectively make a positive difference.
Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.
Not really — but what makes it different for me is that I study history. As a lifelong learner who loves to learn from our past, I see this as yet another challenge for humankind. For the United States, for New York, for Dutchess County, for Anderson, as well as for people from all corners of the globe. These challenges come every once in a while; we’ve had them before and we’ll have them again. I believe there will never be a time in history when everything runs smoothly without some bumps in the road. Some are bigger than others. This is a very big one — but we’ll learn and grow from it and we’ll be better for having endured it.
What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?
I strongly believe that we need to reinvest and spend time examining our response to pandemics — we need to be much better-prepared, not only for a crisis like this which could come again, but in general, across the board. It’ll be something different the next time something happens, so we need a generalized response to crisis situations, and a specific response to this pandemic — and any future pandemics. The probability is that it’ll happen again, maybe or maybe not in our lifetimes, but we need to learn from this. People get complacent — and that’s one thing that’s come out of this — you need to frequently revisit your priorities, plan for the unexpected, and in the meantime, enjoy time with those you love. We were all running around way too much before Covid-19. The pause showed all of us that we were trying to be too many things to too many people. What’s most important is to slow down and spend time with the people who matter the most to each of us.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would say: “show up!” I think our generation understands that we have an obligation to provide public service in some way, shape, or form — through boards, volunteering, belonging to or working for an organization. But in some ways, it’s become more difficult for younger people to do that because the cost of living is so high now that they don’t necessarily have the time or bandwidth to get involved; they’re just trying to afford the essentials and have to work so hard for the basics. It’s difficult for young people; I feel for them — they have very little free time after working enough to pay for an apartment or car or whatever they need. But that said, I hope that people can see how important it is to show up and engage in something bigger than themselves. At Anderson, we’ve struggled to attract younger board members, younger volunteers, and people of color. We’d love to see more people get involved; we need their fresh energy, ideas, and perspectives — they could make such a positive impact, and it will likewise enrich their lives too.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
A movement to be less partisan, and to take into account everyone’s point of view. Life is not a winner take all situation; no matter what the situation, we should all walk away feeling like we got something we needed and that our voices were heard. We need a movement toward greater civility, toward mutual respect for one another’s ideas and differences. I have people on my team who feel differently than me and are on opposite sides of the spectrum — but we all have a voice — and we can all feel satisfied if we seek moderation. I hope to see a movement take shape where we listen more and open our minds and hearts up to understanding and honoring our differences. That could be a great takeaway of this pandemic if people recognize the power of working together.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris! Given the fact that she could become president one day, and is the first female person of color to serve as Vice President, I’d love to hear her views on things before her work in the White House really gets underway. I think it’d be fascinating.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!