The Arc chooses Piper as director

Ex-community services chief to head agency fordevelopmentally disabled

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Michael Piper has been hired as the new executive director of financially ailing The Arc of Southwest Washington. Piper, who has worked as Clark County's director of community services and as Vancouver's sustainability coordinator, begins the job Feb. 1.

The Arc serves people with developmental disabilities of all kinds with education, support services and advocacy. Justin Myers, president of The Arc board, said Piper was chosen for the job because of his obvious dedication to The Arc, which over the past few years has lost some public contracts, suffered a budget meltdown and laid off more than half its staff.

"We've had a lot of people who heard we were going to be looking for an executive," he said. "They said, when things progress, when we've got everything lined up and the bleeding has stopped, I'll be interested in being considered."

But Piper, he said, promised to be "heavily involved" in The Arc whether he was chosen or not. And when he was told the job tenure might be just a year or two — depending on The Arc's future financial health — Piper was still enthusiastic.

"He said, 'I'm here to do whatever you want me to do. Let's talk.' That was wonderful to hear. You want that sincerity," Myers said.

Piper, 62, lives in Vancouver's Arnada neighborhood and will wrap up his current job as sustainability analyst for Clackamas County, Ore., at the end of January.

"Vancouver is where I've lived for a number of years, and I'm really glad to be back working in my own community," he said.

As Clark County's community services director, he said, he worked with all sorts of special needs populations but found developmentally disabled people "the most endearing and rewarding and special." When he took over the community service department, he said, the first thing he did was hold a series of community meetings in order to hear what the public wanted.

"It was very rewarding, and we learned a remarkable amount. That's what I want to do again -- go out and actively listen to this community."

Piper said he looks forward to working with The Arc board to develop a long-term strategic plan.

Myers said Piper's salary will be paid from private donations and will not be made public.

Lagging thanks

For the past year, board president Myers, an executive at U.S. Bank, has also acted as director at The Arc. He's had the unenviable task of laying off staffers,

paying off debt and trying to reconstitute The Arc programs that used to be run by highly trained professionals. He has promised a return of PRIDE for Kids, a physical therapy program, but almost certainly in a form that relies more on voluntary peer support and less on professional therapists. It's still not exactly clear how or when PRIDE for Kids will come back.

Meanwhile, Myers conceded that the financial troubles of the past year continue to dog The Arc and its interactions with its fans and the public. The Columbian received a complaint at the end of December from a retired special education teacher who's been moved by The Arc's plight and donated $500 to the nonprofit.

But she never received any written acknowledgment of the tax-deductible donation, and calls to The Arc weren't returned, or wound up in busy-signal limbo. There is no functioning local website for The Arc; Internet searches lead to a national umbrella Arc page that does include a local phone number -- and the name of a staff member who's no longer there.

Myers said he's aware of the lag in donation acknowledgments and the website problem. He chalked all that up to a slimmed-down staff that's been stretched to its limits.

"When your staffing goes from 60 to 45 to 28, everybody is very stressed," he said. "By having Michael come aboard with us, it's going to alleviate a lot of that stress."

Just to clear up any confusion, he said: The Arc is at 6511 N.E. 18th Street, and the phone number is 360-254-1562. Myers hopes to build a new website soon.

Myers is getting ready to step back from acting director and board president to treasurer. His first priority, he said, is getting those tax deduction forms out.

"We can't have that happen," he said of the missing forms. "We're going to log every donation and get a slip out the same day."

The new Arc board president will be Mike Dalesandro of Battle Ground, Myers said.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.