Sunday Profile: Longtime Mountain Valley director leaves legacy of leadership | PostIndependent.com

Sunday Profile: Longtime Mountain Valley director leaves legacy of leadership

Bruce Christensen and client Jeremy Pfauth talk about football in the greenhouse at Mountain Valley Developmental Services. Christensen is retiring from the organization after nearly 40 years as executive director. Current Associate Director Sara Sims will be taking the helm.

Four decades in the executive director's seat of any nonprofit organization is nearly unheard of, especially in the Roaring Fork Valley with its high cost of living and relatively high rate of turnover in such positions.

Then again, Bruce Christensen vividly remembers the Mountain Valley Developmental Services board remarking when he interviewed for the job back in 1979 that they wanted someone who would stay awhile.

Now, 39 and a half years later, Christensen is ready to call it a career and hand the baton over to his successor, longtime MVDS employee and current associate director, Sara Sims.

Christensen, 72, officially retires this month, and after a few more weeks of helping see the transition through he's off to new adventures carrying out his newfound passion for world travel.

"Absolutely, the most rewarding thing for me has been to see the success of the people we've worked with over the years," he said of an organization that provides services for adults and children with intellectual disabilities and helps keep those residents in their own communities.

Christensen recalls that he was once quoted in the local newspaper, "I feel like I've got the best job in the world …"

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"I still feel that way," he says today. "It's the honest truth, there's not been a single day in my 39-plus years here that I haven't looked forward to going to work."

That's because his work, and that of the other 150 employees of Mountain Valley Developmental Services (MVDS), is rewarding by its very nature.

Much has changed since the late 1970s when it comes to serving people with developmental, or intellectual, disabilities. When Christensen first joined the organization, after having worked with a similar organization in Kansas, the field was evolving rapidly.

"At that time, a lot of people with intellectual disabilities were living in state institutions," he said. "We've moved from institutions run by the state to these pretty structured community facilities run by us, with much more community inclusion and independence."

MVDS was one of Colorado's pioneers in ushering in the rather new concept of keeping people with disabilities in their own community.

community integration

Christensen recalls his second day on the job when MVDS was getting ready to open its first residential facility, and meeting with the parents whose adult children had been at an institutions in Grand Junction. The obvious question was, how would they adjust?

Group homes were a new idea that MVDS and other community-based programs took the lead in developing. The key was finding employers who would be willing to hire any of the people who were capable of working jobs.

"Since that time, we've moved to where about half of our people live very independently in apartments, some of which we own and others that they rent," Christensen said. "And, a lot of people are employed right here in the community."

Among the memorabilia on his office wall is a picture of one man who got a job guiding planes onto the apron at the Eagle County Airport.

"That's probably the most impressive job any of our clients have gotten," Christensen said.

"I remember talking to employers, saying, 'if you hire this person, they will come to work every day, on time, and they'll enjoy their work,'" he also recalls.

MVDS clients can be found in the Roaring Fork Valley communities working at restaurants, hospitals, mechanics shops, bakeries, on the ski mountain at Sunlight, Aspen and Vail, at the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, you name it.

Much has changed since the late 1970s for MVDS as an organization. When Christensen first arrived from Kansas with his late wife, Patti, to take the job, MVDS was three years old and had already had two executive directors.

The organization had only eight or nine employees, with a $160,000 annual budget and no residential services. Its only facility was the main office and program center on Mt. Sopris Drive that was deeded to MVDS by the developers of Glenwood Park. The building had been the stables for the monastery that used to be on the site.

Today, MVDS has 150 employees and an annual budget of $10 million, and about 90 people live in the organization's 20 residential facilities stretching from Glenwood Springs to Carbondale, and along the Interstate 70 corridor from Rulison to Minturn, and even in Leadville.

Mountain Valley now serves about 180 adults each year, and another 350 children ages birth to 3 years.

"Our success with children is phenomenal," he said. "About 35 to 38 percent of the children we serve go on to need special ed services when go to school., which is a tremendous return on investment."

"As a field, we've moved into providing a more typical community life for our adult population," Christensen said. "And, we're also serving people who have much more significant challenges than we used to."

While some of Mountain Valley's facilities offer largely independent living, others have a full staff of personal care providers who tend to resident needs.

"Glenwood and Carbondale, in particular, have been very open and accepting," said Christensen, who also has worked for 30 years for the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF), helping oversee the accreditation of facilities similar to MVDS in the United States and Canada.

"In all of my travels with that organization, I have never seen communities that are as open to diverse people as ours are here," he said.

giving back

During his many years in Glenwood Springs, Christensen has also found time for community involvement, including serving for 20 years on the Garfield County Human Services Commission and, from 2003 to 2011, on Glenwood Springs City Council, including six years as mayor.

"It had nothing to do with any skill that I had," he says of his stint as mayor. "It was more about timing."

Christensen had been close friends with the late Glenwood Springs Mayor Ted O'Leary, who also had been the board president for MVDS.

For his part, Christensen was named Garfield County Humanitarian of the Year for 2002, and for two straight years, in 2006-07, he was the Glenwood Springs Post Independent's "Local's Choice" winner for Best Politician.

He also chaired the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board for eight years during the period of time that the transit agency built the Rio Grande Trail and started its greatly expanded Bus Rapid Transit system.

capable hands

As an organization, Christensen said MVDS has been fortunate to have several staff members who've served for 30-plus years. The new director, Sims, has been with MVDS in different capacities for 22 years.

"She's demonstrated a strong commitment to the families and the people we serve, and she has a really good knowledge of the state system, which is very important in this position," Christensen said of Sims.

"Sara understands our mission and our values, which is one of the things I thought was most important when I talked to the board about a successor," he said. "We have a culture that does put the desires of the people we serve and families first, and she fits that culture well."

Sims said she has learned much from Christensen in the time they've worked together.

"He has shown me the value of treating people with fairness and dignity," she said. "Bruce brought stability and ingenuity into lives of the individuals using our services, and he laid a foundation for the community integration of people who otherwise hadn't known it …

"Bruce has imparted me with the conviction of being educated on issues that matter, questioning the superfluous, and forging ahead with that which is right in the eyes of those who will be effected by it."

As the incoming director, Sims said she hopes to "evolve and adapt our services to meet the needs of individuals and our communities, to capture and grow opportunities, and to maintain or elevate the quality and efficiencies of our services."

Christensen said he plans to continue working for the accrediting organization, CARF, and will take some more time to travel.

"It's going to be a big adjustment," he said. "Up until a few years ago I had never taken more than five days off at a time."

A community retirement party for Christensen is planned later this month.

bruce christensen retirement party

5-8 p.m., Wednesday, July 18

Hotel Colorado

Everyone’s invited

RSVP to Courtney Little by July 11: courtney@mtnvalley.org