The way Robert Stack sees it, people with severe disabilities are like celebrities. “They’re both surrounded by people paid to be around them. They’re not really given objective friendships,” says Mr. Stack, the founder, president, and chief executive officer of Community Options, the Princeton-based agency that provides the disabled with residential and employment support.
Affording the disabled the dignity that comes with those normal, objective relationships is a big part of the mission of Community Options, which is marking its 25th anniversary this year. On February 8, the organization celebrates in Princeton and 23 other sites across the nation with the annual Cupid’s Chase 5K.
Mr. Stack runs the agency’s 150 chapters across the nation from his office on Farber Road. As the organization has grown, the mission has remained the same: to find housing and employment for people with disabilities. After studying to become a priest, Mr. Stack changed his career path and founded Community Options in 1989 with a check for $347.
“I remember going to Morven, when Kean was governor, and giving Jane Burgio [Secretary of State under Mr. Kean] the check, and filling out the articles of incorporation,” he says. Today, Community Options operates in nine states, with about 3,100 employees and a budget of over $81 million, according to its annual report. People with autism, cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injury are the usual clients.
Mr. Stack directed the United Cerebral Palsy of New Jersey before founding Community Options. “I looked at a lot of non-profit organizations, and I stole their best practice options,” he says. “I saw that operating as one entity instead of many was the best way to go. And by doing so, we have kept our administrative costs under 11 percent. That means roughly 89 cents of every dollar goes to the organization.”
Some 45 people work for Community Options in Princeton. The organization’s first three group homes were located in Lawrence, Robbinsville, and Ewing. The newest is in Princeton, on North Harrison Street.
“Through the Borough of Princeton and COAH (The Council on Affordable Housing), we were able to enlarge a small house that now has four people living there,” Mr. Stack says. “And we have one opening in Hopewell Township, which we built from the ground up. Hopewell donated the land. So now these people with disabilities have a place to go and to live. It’s very important. There are people who have lived with their parents, who need to have housing when the parents become elderly and can no longer take care of them.”
The agency has also been able to find jobs for the severely disabled. “We have five people working at the Toys ’R Us factory, making over $11.50 an hour and getting benefits. These are folks who traditionally had not been employed,” Mr. Stack says.
The Cupid’s Chase fundraiser on February 8 starts at Princeton Shopping Center and heads up and down Bunn Drive before hitting the North Harrison street bike path, past Princeton Healthcare Center, and back to the shopping center. This year’s chairman is architect and former Princeton Borough Councilman Kevin WIlkes. Mr. Stack expects between 300 and 400 participants.
“We build on the Cupid and Valentine’s Day theme. We give out red shirts people can wear if they’re available, and white shirts if they’re not,” Mr. Stack says, “with a sponsor on the back. It’s a big event — we’re hoping for 8,000 nationwide. Last year we raised about $100,000.”
Anyone can run or walk in the event. It costs $30 to register in advance, or $50 the day of the race, which begins at 10 a.m. (registration at 8 a.m.). Call (609) 514-9494 for information.