HURLEYVILLE – Danny Abelson still ponders the moment his son reached a social level his parents never dreamed possible. It was three years ago at Tilly’s Diner in Monticello. Danny and his wife, Patti, witnessed their then 31-year-old son, Tommy, who has a developmental disability, kidding with Jim Sullivan, a Hurleyville fire department member. Tommy turned to Sullivan, who was walking behind him, and jokingly asked, “Are you following me?” to which Sullivan replied, “As a matter of fact, I am.”With a wry smile, Tommy replied, “OK, I was just checking.”

To Tommy’s parents, it was magical, the culmination of his time working with Center for Discovery® staff since moving to one of its residences in Hurleyville in 2007.It was a high-level interaction between two equal men, after Tommy had spent life struggling to think and communicate.“Tommy is moving confidently in a way that’s bigger than us,” Abelson said.“He’s become a person who counts in the world.”

Seventy years after the Center for Discovery®’s predecessor organization was founded, it’s become a renowned caregiver and researcher for individuals with complex developmental disabilities, and it’s still expanding after years of growth.

Already Sullivan County’s largest employer, with 1,600 employees, the center plans to hire 400 more across its departments by 2020. Plus, the nonprofit recently received state approval to build a $15 million pediatric specialty hospital in the Town of Thompson. Plans call for an 18-bed sub-acute treatment and research center of up to 30,000 square feet, focused on autism and other complex conditions. The nonprofit’s leaders would not say where it might be.

But Bill Rieber and Steve Vegliante, supervisors of the towns of Thompson and Fallsburg, and Sullivan County Partnership President and CEO Marc Baez said the center is negotiating with state officials to buy the former Frontier Insurance building in Rock Hill. The center’s leaders said they hope to open the hospital in 2020, with 100 staff members annually serving 160 patients ages 5 to 21. Each will generally stay 30 to 90 days.

Growth spurt

Begun in 1948 by a few families from the Jeffersonville area as the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Sullivan County, the center now helps 1,200 clients annually.

In recent years, the center has grown to:

  • develop 50 residences integrating people with developmental disabilities into communities, while providing a long list of therapy services
  • build a cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary research center studying autism, dementia, ADHD and other brain disorders
  • buy and harvest 300 acres of organic farmland to feed center residents and staff and create food production facilities including a bakery
  • redevelop downtown Hurleyville to help private operators open a variety of businesses
  • collaborate with the Open Space Institute and the Town of Fallsburg to purchase and upgrade the nine-mile Milk Train Trail, which connects Ferndale to South Fallsburg.

“It’s a living model of what inclusion looks like,” said Abelson. Her son works at the Hurleyville Market, volunteers at the fire department, walks the rail trail and performs at the Hurleyville Arts Centre. He’s even acting as Tevye in the center’s upcoming “Fiddler on the Roof” production. “The center is a gem in our community, and I’m thrilled they’re here,” said Town of Fallsburg Supervisor Vegliante. “They’ve completely redesigned and redeveloped Hurleyville, which has enabled other private investment to follow in this area.”

Sullivan County leaders often credit the center and Alan and Sandra Gerry, the philanthropic forces behind the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, for showing that positive development was possible even during the county’s dark decades.

“Alan likes to say he just helped keep the lights on” following the decline of the county’s resorts, said Sandra Gerry, chairwoman of the Gerry Foundation’s Sullivan Renaissance program and the Sullivan 180 revitalization organization. “But one person or entity didn’t do it alone.”

“The hospital, the local government stepping to the plate, Sullivan Renaissance, the casino, and a lot of other people have worked together” to rejuvenate the county, Gerry added. “The center has played a marvelous role in keeping the economy going in this area, too. I don’t know what we would’ve been as a county without them.” Rieber also can’t picture Sullivan County without the center. “I don’t think we’d have replaced the jobs we’ve lost, or we’d have had a higher incidence of unemployment as people (moved) out of the area to get jobs,” Rieber said.

In 2016, the center disbursed $77.14 million in wages, generated $102 million in direct economic output, and paid $3.2 million in state and local taxes, according to a recent center-commissioned economic impact study by analytics firm Teconomy Partners. “When the center’s leaders make up their minds to do something, they never go in halfway or three quarters,” said Baez of the Sullivan County Partnership, an economic development organization. “Their outcomes always exceed our expectations.”

Hospital on the horizon

A hospital is the center’s next big plan, and local elected leaders said the former Frontier Insurance building is a possible location.

The New York Liquidation Bureau took over the insurance business in the early 2000s, following massive losses, wound it down and closed it in 2013, leaving vacant a prime Sullivan County building.

“The goal of our whole organization is to create the architecture of healing,” said Patrick Dollard, 68, who attributed the center’s success to the creative, open-minded leaders and staff hired since he became president and CEO in 1980.

“We don’t treat the disability. We treat the person.”