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Kennedy Center president stepping down after building a legacy of care for the disabled

Martin Schwartz Kennedy Center
Marty Schwartz in his office at The Kennedy Center’s recently renamed Martin D. Schwartz Building in Trumbull. Photo by Kevin Zimmerman

Following 39 years at the helm of the nonprofit Kennedy Center in Trumbull, president and CEO Marty Schwartz will officially retire this month. Even as he prepares to leave behind a legacy of explosive growth in client outreach, budget and branding, Schwartz continues to maintain an apparent unflappability that has served him well throughout his career.

Take, for example, the Dec. 18 ribbon-cutting ceremony to dedicate the center’s headquarters at 2440 Reservoir Ave. as the Martin D. Schwartz Building, an event still in the future when he sat down with the Business Journal last month.

“It’s an amazing thing for our board to have done,” he said of the renaming in his honor. He smiled. “I’ll believe it when I see the sign.”

While his humility seems genuine, Schwartz has been a tenacious advocate for the populations the center serves — a broad range of children, adults and the elderly with diverse disabilities — as well as for the center and the nonprofit landscape at large.

“It’s always hard for nonprofits, but it’s especially hard right now,” he said. “We’ve had our budget cut (by the state) for eight years in a row, to the point where they can’t really cut us anymore.”

Even so, he said, the Kennedy Center has not had to cut any jobs, an achievement of which Schwartz is particularly proud.

“Our staff doesn’t get paid a lot to begin with,” he noted. “They work here because they have a passion for it. But they still have to put food on the table.”

Instead, Schwartz said, the organization has chosen not to fill staff vacancies when they occur and has cut some services such as day programs for disabled persons in Newtown and Southbury.

“I think the governor is finally getting the message. He’s starting to realize that we’re part of the solution, not the problem. We can save the state a tremendous amount of money,” Schwartz said, arguing that in the absence of nonprofits like the Kennedy Center, the state would have to pick up those services and costs.

Even with the budget cuts, today’s Kennedy Center bears little fiscal resemblance to what it was when Bridgeport resident Evelyn Kennedy led 12 other parents of children with disabilities to establish an education and support system. The founders raised funds in part by going door to door with cigar boxes to collect donations. On April 11, 1951, the group filed for incorporation as Parents and Friends of Mentally Retarded Children of Bridgeport Inc.

Steadily growing and expanding its outreach to include adults and the elderly, while also increasing its programs for those suffering from an ever-widening array of conditions, the organization ultimately decided in 1978 to hire its first president and CEO.

Schwartz, who as an undergraduate at Syracuse University had switched from studying biochemistry to psychology, had been persuaded by his college roommate to volunteer at the National Association for Retarded Citizens, now The Arc of the United States. “I felt how what I was doing could make a real difference almost immediately,” he said.

Earning his master’s degree in counseling at Syracuse, Schwartz began working at The Children’s Village, a nonprofit in Dobbs Ferry in Westchester County. There he soon decided that when it came to being in charge, “I’d like that job,” he said.

At about that time, a friend showed him the Kennedy Center’s CEO ad in The New York Times. “There were something like 400 applicants,” Schwartz said, “and for some reason they chose me.”

Evelyn Kennedy, who died in 2010, clearly thought the hire had worked out. She is quoted on the center’s website: “Marty Schwartz moved the organization to the level of expertise, competency and recognition that made The Kennedy Center name synonymous with excellence.”

At the time of his appointment, the agency served fewer than 200 adults with intellectual disabilities, employed 48 staff and operated on an annual budget of $776,000. Today, Schwartz said, the organization — which was renamed after Evelyn Kennedy in 1986 and relocated to Trumbull in 1992 — annually serves more than 2,000 people with various disabilities, employs more than 750 staff and operates on an annual $32 million budget.

Along the way it has established 31 community experience programs and 16 group homes; an industries program composed of six businesses providing competitive services in cleaning, scanning and shredding, catering, lawn care and framing; and brain injury support services and mental health services. The center acquired the Maggie Daly Arts Cooperative in downtown Bridgeport, which offers opportunities for creation and expression in a supportive environment for artists with and without disabilities.

Under Schwartz’s stewardship, the center also established itself as a nationally recognized rehabilitation organization. It delivers such program services as travel training, which teaches people with disabilities and seniors how to properly use local bus and rail service on a one-to-one basis, and Caring for the Caregiver, which teaches adults with disabilities to assume caregiving roles for their aging parent. The center also operates The Norma F. Pfriem Foundation Alzheimer’s Center, a day program for disabled people with the incurable disease at Faust Hall in Bridgeport.

Schwartz also oversaw two major million-dollar capital campaigns that helped in the Center’s expansion. In December, he was the guest of honor at The Kennedy Center’s 53rd annual Four Seasons Ball, which raised $170,000 for its residential services for people with disabilities.

“The board over the years has been extremely flexible,” said Schwartz, “and has taken the view that whatever the needs are, that’s where we’ll be, as long as we can provide good, quality service. That’s what’s kept me here for 39 years.”

So why not go for a nice, round 40?

“My wife (Elaine) retired as guidance director at (Westport’s) Staples High School in June,” said Schwartz, who announced his retirement that same month. “My daughter (Allyson Mandelbaum) in Fairfield has a 4- and a 1-year-old, and I have two other grandchildren in Westchester County. The time just felt right.”

Besides, “I don’t mind getting out of the cold. We’re going to spend some time in Florida and take a trip to Australia. I thought it was time to finally do some traveling while I still can.”

With his exit from the CEO’s office planned for mid-January — no specific retirement date has been set — Schwartz said he was secure with the legacy he leaves.

“I think I’ve helped guide the organization in a positive direction and take it to the next level,” he said. “But what’s most important to me is to think of the thousands of lives that I and the organization have touched and helped over the past 39 years.”



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