Lynda Steele gives her retirement speech to over 100 guests at
her May 1, 2014 retirement party hosted by the Board of Directors.
Dear friends,

My decision to retire seemed like the right time for me and Abilities United as we ended our 50th year of service to the community and started on our next 50 years.

Little did I know when I began this journey that being the leader of Abilities United would be such an amazing and life changing experience.  So many of you in this room tonight have supported me, and the agency, over many years in many varied and wonderful ways. I want to share some highlights tonight about how your support and this experience has enriched my life and made me who I am today.

As Nancy Parker knew when I was first hired, I had some fundamental values and beliefs, which laid a good foundation for my role as ED.  I grew up poor and homeless in England but the values that my parents, community, and education instilled in me led me to a career in social services.  At college I read a quote that has stayed with me – one measure of a society’s civilization is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.  Early in my career, I witnessed the abuse and exploitation of people with disabilities who lived in dreadful conditions in British institutions.  When I was recruited to transition the residents out of one of those awful places and into the community, I couldn’t turn down that opportunity to help transform these archaic services. The 350 people who moved into the community thrived for the first time in their lives…and they became my friends. A few still write to me to this day.

So when I moved to the United States, Abilities United was the perfect place for me to land because our founding families also believed in a better future for their children outside of institutional walls. They fought long and hard for their children’s right to live in the community.

So there I was in 1993…the new ED of the agency. I was not born a leader but I did learn from many of you in this room what leadership truly means. I had some very good role models; especially in board members. The leadership of every Board and Board President brought a steadying hand and wisdom to guide me. They inspired me with their compassion, understanding, and resilience especially during very tough financial times.

The Board also gave me the gift of leadership development. They arranged for me to attend nonprofit leadership programs at the Harvard Business School, the Center for Creative leadership -where I met and learnt from Peter Drucker no less – and the leadership Institute at the Center for Excellence in Non-profits. These educational opportunities taught me the value of best business practices and strategies, and how to translate them to Abilities United. I learnt that business practices benefit Abilities United and the people who use our services. These leadership lessons helped me alter how I viewed my role as ED.  I stopped saying “I manage a non-profit” to saying “I lead a nonprofit.”

This new mantel of leadership could not be possible without the deep and meaningful relationship I have with the parents and the people we serve.  They role modeled leadership for me as leaders in their own right. They have taught me so much about trust, resilience, determination, compassion and love, even in the face of what seems like the most insurmountable challenges.  They are what keeps me fighting for what is right and for taking on the challenges and joys of being the Abilities United Executive Director.

Speaking of challenges, when the Board hired me, they didn’t exactly explain that I would also have to become a fundraiser. I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this! My first experience asking an individual for money was nothing short of enlightening. It happened before I became the Executive Director. We had invited Lucile Packard to visit because we needed funding to build a new facility on Charleston Road. Everything was planned, everyone knew about the visit and a careful presentation had been prepared by staff. Lucile walked into our building but things did not go according to plan.  Lucile was introduced to Karen, a person with Down Syndrome. As she was shaking hands with Lucile, Karen, totally unexpectedly, said “So you’re going to give us the money – aren’t you? “ Lucile, very graciously, replied “Of course I will” and so she did. I was amazed and impressed by Karen’s straight forward approach. This experience made me start to learn about fundraising. Over time I now realize  what an  honor and a privilege it is to ask for a donation to benefit the people we serve.

My greatest inspiration though is what is happening everyday at Abilities United!  The very people with disabilities that we serve have found their own voice to fight for their rightful place in the community. They are conducting voter registration drives, educating themselves about public policy, and becoming the strong self-advocates. They have humbled me and amazed me with their perseverance and belief that they can fulfill their dreams. My relationships with the people we serve have been the most meaningful of all. We have cried together, we have laughed together. Each of these individuals have been an integral part of my life and have taught me countless lessons, too many to recount.

However, one anecdote is particularly memorable. I was returning to my office from two very difficult meetings. I was tired and very grumpy. As I walked into the office, a young man from the Adult Services program followed me to my office and asked if I was OK.  I muttered something about having a bad day. He stood in my office, stared at my feet, and matter-of-factly said, “I just needed to let you know your feet look strange.  You are wearing a black shoe on one foot and a beige one on the other!”  I was embarrassed at that discovery but thanked him for letting me know.  He simply stated; “I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets things wrong around here.” Suddenly we; a participant and an Executive Director; were on “equal footing” pun intended.  His honesty and humor, and our shared human fallibility bonded us. That early experience stayed with me each day of my 20+ years as Executive Director and gave me perspective on what is important in life and work.

None of these life changing experiences and lessons would have been possible without your support, understanding, wisdom and guidance and for this I am eternally grateful. My closest friends who are here tonight have supported me greatly because they know how rewarding this work has been for me and we are now looking forward to spending some quality time together. I want to thank them for their support and the greater balance they brought to my life.

So a big shout-out to each and every one of you here tonight and a heartfelt thank you. And rest assured I shall keep a close eye on what Abilities United accomplishes in the future – I know it will be exciting because – there is never a dull moment at Abilities United.  I cannot think of a better organization to go beyond imagining, to creating a fully inclusive community. Thank you, it’s been a privilege!

Lynda Steele, Executive Director
May 1, 2014 retirement speech