Fred Erlich is retiring from Living Resources, Inc. after 39 years. The work, he says, has been “magical.” “This has been such a great opportunity to create homes and services for individuals who have a lifelong disability,” says Erlich.
Erlich founded Living Resources in 1974 and became CEO in 1981. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s degrees in social welfare as well as a master’s degree in business administration. Fred had been working for the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities when he decided to create Living Resources. He knew he wanted to help people with disabilities, and to create an alternative to the institutions that were the norm at that time. Thousands of individuals needed the opportunity to return to their home communities. He wanted to provide people with disabilities a small home where they could develop more fully as individuals. He envisioned a group home program, where residents could be part of a community. Erlich believed each person should be given the opportunity to attain new skills, live independently, even become economically independent through employment. (Many individuals found steady jobs and have since retired.)
Initially, people were resistant to the idea of a group home. Hearings were held and many turned out to argue against the proposal, claiming it would diminish property values and pose a safety threat. Eventually, Erich’s arguments for compassion won out and he was able to create a new start for many individuals to become good friends and neighbors. Since its inception, Living Resources has developed and opened nearly 50 group homes after local hearings and public support won the day.
“I remember, when I went to pick people up and drove them to their new group home after decades of institutionalization. I felt so excited, knowing that I was driving adults to freedom. The best part was their expression of gratitude, knowing they were going to a real home!” says Erlich.
Erlich began Living Resources with one group home, 2 employees and 12 residents. Today, the agency includes group residences serving 250 individuals, 800+ employees, and supports more than 2,000 individuals and their families in an expansive array of services.
Erlich stated that Living Resources now includes day programs, after-school programs, employment training, art studios, and the College Experience Program, which provides individuals with developmental disabilities and brain injury survivors, a college education and job skills training. But more impactful still, with Living Resources, he has brought individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities out into the open, and helped create a more inclusive and compassionate society. It is that legacy he is most proud of.
“As a society, it took us a long time to realize that people with disabilities have self-worth,” says Erlich.”
Erlich believes that everyone ought to be given opportunities to grow and connect with others, and with Living Resources, he opened that pathway to even more people. Whether it’s learning how to cook and clean for oneself or using creative talents to enrich the lives of others, Living Resources provides individuals with the support and opportunity to discover new ways every day to realize their full potential.
Erlich also advocates for employment for individuals with disabilities and many of the programs have job-readiness components, including skills training, job shadowing, and internships. With the right supports, Living Resources has able to find employment for so many individuals since its inception over 30 years ago.
The work has been gratifying, and Erlich will miss his team when he retires next month. (He will not miss worrying about his staff though. “We have 180 cars on the road each day. I won’t miss thinking about that,” he says with a laugh.)
The disability landscape has grown exponentially since his career began, and there’s still so much to do.
More sophisticated medical treatments are saving lives and creating a new population of disabled individuals. “Their needs are different, and it’s an area we’d like to explore more,” he says. “Society has done a wonderful job keeping people alive. Now we need to spend more time ensuring a good quality of life for those individuals.” Robotics and advanced security systems are also contributing to enhanced quality of life for people with disabilities.
Erlich says heading up Living Resources for almost four decades has taught him a great deal about life and relationships. “You can solve most problems with the right mindset,” he says. He credits his staff with so much of the organization’s success. He hopes that the agency will continue to celebrate the passion and commitment of many staff and their contributions.
“It’s the staff. They make it happen. The Director is the most dependent person in the organization. You’re dependent on everyone’s collaboration, and good will, and it’s a good feeling.”
Erlich didn’t talk about specific plans for life after Living Resources, other than to say he plans to “start a fresh canvas and continue creating”.
“My greatest pleasure is altruism,” he says. “There’s a lot of things I could still do to help people.”