Jo Ann Simons pictured outside of Northeast Arc. She has served as the nonprofit organization’s CEO since January 2016.
By BILL BROTHERTON
When Jo Ann Simons graduated from Wheaton College with a bachelor’s in urban studies in the mid-’70s, she was unsure of her career path. “You had two choices: make money or make a difference,” said Simons, a Swampscott High grad and longtime resident of the town.
When she graduated from the University of Connecticut with a masters in social work, with a focus on women’s issues and health issues, she was still undecided about her future.
“And then my career chose me. My son, Jonathan, was born with Down syndrome,” said Simons, sitting in her office at Northeast Arc, where she has been CEO since January 2016.
She was shocked and dismayed that there were hardly any services to help families. So she decided to be an advocate for Jonathan and others with developmental and intellectual disabilities, using her skills and learning along the way.
It was the start of a rich, rewarding career. Today, Simons is recognized worldwide as a leader in the nonprofit arena, particularly in the evolution of services for families of developmental disabilities. She has certainly made a difference.
“I am continuously inspired by families and our staff,” added Simons. “People who need services are getting them.”
Danvers-based Northeast Arc helps children and adults with disabilities become full participants in the community. It is the second-largest Arc in the United States, serving more than 8,000 persons in nearly 200 towns annually, and Simons oversees a $230 million operating budget and 1,100 employees.
This is Simons’ second stint at Northeast Arc. In 1981, when Jonathan was 2, Jerry McCarthy, Simons’ predecessor, hired her “as a department of one” to start a family support program, the first in the state and one of the first in the country.
“If a family needed an advocate, we were there to help. If a sibling was struggling, we were there. When I was in high school, you didn’t see students with disabilities. They were in the basement, eating lunch by themselves, and were excluded in all aspects of community life,” said Simons.
“People with disabilities belong in communities,” she added. Today, persons with disabilities are leading full lives. One example: her son.
Jonathan, 37, who has also survived three heart surgeries, is an active, fulfilled young man. He graduated from Swampscott High, where he was a member of the golf team and manager of the lacrosse and basketball teams. He placed third in the world in Special Olympics golf. He worked at Kernwood Country Club and the former Star Market in Vinnin Square before moving to Cape Cod, where he lives independently, works at Roche Brothers grocery store and New Seabury Country Club. He attended Cape Cod Community College and volunteers at Mashpee Middle School.
“Jonathan is well-liked, well-traveled, personable and happy. He’s a lucky guy,” said Simons.
He’s also wise.
“When Jon was very young, about 12, we were at a bowling banquet and he said ‘you do this work because of me, don’t you?’” said Simons with a smile. “One Mother’s Day, he said ‘I made you a mother and I gave you a career.’ Today, most of our conversations are by text.”
Family photographs dominate space in Simons’ office, including a picture of her 2-year-old grandson, the child of her daughter Emily, a litigator with Ropes & Gray in Boston.
There’s also a plaque that reads “Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible.”
That about sums up Simons’ philosophy about life. She continues to work with many agencies serving persons with developmental disabilities: director of policy for the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, the deputy facility director of the Fernald Development Center, and executive director of the Arc of East Middlesex. She also was president and CEO of Cardinal Cushing Centers.
Simons currently serves as the disability advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and as a Trustee of LIFE Inc. of Cape Cod. She is a past chair of the National Down Syndrome Society, past president of the National Down Syndrome Congress and a consultant to Special Olympics.
And to add more to her resume, she is the author of the “Down Syndrome Transition Handbook” and has been appointed to the Governor’s Commission on People with Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities by Gov. Charlie Baker, also a Swampscott resident.
Simons says Northeast Arc employees and the families they serve are the real heroes. “Everybody who works here goes home satisfied. It’s a really talented staff and members of the board of directors and advisory board are committed,” she said. Board members with Swampscott ties include Larry Zabar, Jeff Musman, Julie Rainer Cummings and Shari Goodstein Munro.
Simons can’t envision living anywhere but Swampscott.
“In a world that’s constantly changing, Swampscott is a safe harbor. When I was pregnant with Jonathan, my husband Chet and I were living in Wisconsin. There was such upheaval in my life and I was terrified. We moved back and instantly there was support from family and the community. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Northeast Arc also provides a safe harbor and lifelong support for thousands of families every year, and Simons plans to build on its success in 2017 and beyond.
Photos: Paula Muller