Keith Vire, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Support Network, says he's had the same question posed to him throughout his entire career: "What family member inspired you to dedicate your life to working with and for people with developmental disabilities?"
"I'll answer 'Nobody,' and they say, 'That can't be true. You can't be as passionate as you are without a direct connection.' And I say, 'Yes. I can.'"
Through Others’ Eyes
“He’s a wonderful person. He’s humble, he’s respectful of all and he’s caring, he’s fun and he’s funny, he’s dedicated, honest, strong, intelligent, he’s an advocate, he’s committed, he’s sensitive, he’s honorable, and he’s always there when I ask for help. I don’t know anyone else I could say this much about.” — Janie Wheeler
“The effect of Keith’s contagious leadership crosses generations. Our son Michael Jarrett currently serves on the ASN board. Michael’s wife, Anna Marie Jarrett, has been active in helping ASN. Our daughter, Kaley Jarrett, has also helped out. And that’s Keith’s influence on just one family. I can assure you he’s had that impact on many families.” — Calvin Jarrett
After 26 years at ASN and 13 before that with the Adult Development Center (now Open Avenues), it's obvious that what Vire does have is empathy, compassion and a deep desire to change the way we, as a society, support those with developmental disabilities.
"He has a knack for sharing his excitement and commitment for his passions and bringing you along for the ride," says Vire's brother-in-law and friend, Calvin Jarrett. "Keith's passion is one of his most important professional attributes."
"He's spent his career educating people about people with disabilities and what they can bring," says friend and colleague Janie Wheeler. "And he's not just a [notable] local or statewide expert -- he's nationally respected."
"I tell people, if you believe the world needs to be changed -- and I think it does -- that's not going to happen because of government and legislation," says Vire. "It's going to happen because of churches and nonprofits, right down to, you know, Kiwanis Clubs. That's the way we're going to change the world."
Vire was born in Johnson County, at a farm about 20 miles north of Clarksville and only a half-mile down the road from his grandparents. The farm was a dream of his father's.
"He was in World War II," says Vire. "He was wounded in France. He was honestly, a war hero." Vire's father saved the lives of several men during World War II, an experience he never spoke of; Vire would learn the details only after his father's death. "I guess he always kind of wanted to be a farmer, so he got his degree at Oklahoma State in animal husbandry and came back and taught vocational agriculture for years and years. He was always trying to do something around the farm."
The house Vire grew up in was a bit primitive, without running water, and the schools Vire and his two younger siblings attended were tiny.
"That school didn't have any math classes beyond algebra," says Vire. "My dad knew that I liked math, and he thought it would benefit me if we moved into Clarksville, I think. So I did one year at Clarksville, and then I finished that up and started college at the University of the Ozarks -- it was College of the Ozarks then."
Then came the draft: Vire's lottery number was low enough that he knew being enrolled in college wouldn't be much of a deterrent to his inevitable service, so he enlisted in the Navy.
"I spent two years in the Navy, most of that time on an aircraft carrier just off the coast of Vietnam," he says. "I was a signal man. The whole thing was six hours on, six hours off. Or six hours on, 12 hours off. You have a ton of time to read and think and talk to people.
"I had a friend who was also a signal man. He was a great guy. Very, very intelligent. And he and I would spend a lot of time talking. He was from Pennsylvania and his goal, when he got out of the service, was to go back to Pennsylvania and work at a steel mill. We would have these long conversations, and I would say, 'How can you do that? You're brilliant. You can do so many things.' And his reply to me, which I still remember vividly, was, 'We have very different ideas about work. You want to work -- that's how you see your life. For me, work just finances my life. My dad worked for the steel mill, my uncles did, I want to make a good living so I can do good things with my family.' I said, 'I want to do good things with my family too!' and he said, 'Yes, but you see your life's mission as your work.' And I realized he was right. I wanted my work to be something more than earning a paycheck and going on home. I want to change the world."
When released from the service, Vire came straight back home and enrolled in the University of Arkansas. Initially, his intent was to become a math teacher -- his favorite subject in school. But after his epiphany in the service -- that he wanted a job that was more of a calling -- he decided to become a special education teacher.
It was in 1975 that major life changes came to Vire, one of them devastating -- his beloved father passed away. But he also started down his path as a special education teacher, which would allow him to work in his chosen field. And, more importantly, he got married to his sweetheart, Jan.
"Without her, I would never have been able to do this for the past 42 years," he says. "I definitely hit the wife jackpot." Jan would later work for the Fayetteville Public School system as a reading specialist, which, says Vire, "she was absolutely great at."
The couple did a brief stint in Springfield, Mo., where Vire finished his master's degree and taught public school. When he got the phone call to be the executive director of The Adult Development Center, he jumped at the chance to return to Northwest Arkansas and effect change on a bigger scale.
Five moms and a dream
"It was actually only myself and one other employee, and we supported about seven people in two rooms of a church that we rented," remembers Vire. "By the time I left, after 13 years, we had our own building, our own work program going on and 120 people coming in every day. The board was really good, and the community was really supportive.
"[But] my philosophy changed over the years. The idea of having a sheltered workshop and segregated facilities ... I came to a place where I realized there was a better way to do things."
When he got a call from a friend he had worked with over the years to come and work for the fledgling Arkansas Support Network, he found that it fit with his shifting philosophy. He served on their board starting in 1989 and was hired as executive director in 1991.
"This organization was really doing things differently," Vire says. "We support tons of people, but we support them in their own homes and apartments, which I think is the best thing to do. It's hard to do it, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.
"The people that I used to work with, who I still love, sometimes get a little upset at me because I was so passionate about that work and all of a sudden I decided there was a different way. And I think that really hurt some people's feelings. I try to be really supportive of that work, but I do think there is a better way. I had a conversation with someone where he said, 'You're saying my parents did the wrong thing by putting my sister into an institution,' and I said, 'I'm not. Forty years ago, that was the only option. I'm just asking you to not let it be the only option for people moving forward.'"
Vire says the beginnings of Arkansas Support Network were truly grassroots, hatched around a kitchen table one evening.
"It was started by five moms who had young children with disabilities. These folks looked at the landscape of services that were available for adults with disabilities, and they just said, 'You know what, we want something more than that when our child grows up.' So they got a grant from the state to start this thing called family support. The program, for the first two years, was simply to provide families who had young children with disabilities with some cash assistance and some moral support. The whole idea was, 'We want to help you keep your child at home and out of an institution.' The cash assistance the first year was up to $5,000. And this is how you know it was a good program: At the end of the first year, the people receiving the cash went to the founders and said, 'This is a really good thing, and, for half the money, you could support twice the [number of] families.'"
The Family Support Network is still in operation through ASN and is, in fact, the only one in the state.
"We support 125 families every year, from birth through the age of 18," says Vire. "The support is for the family, not for the child. We just say to families, 'The only thing we're asking is that you have a commitment to keep your child at home, not at an institution, and. as long as you do that, the funding is almost ultra-flexible. We believe the family knows what's best for the family."
The autonomy of the family has remained sacrosanct to ASN over the years, adds Vire.
"Since 1988, we started out believing that families are the experts about their children. People should be in control of their services, in control over their lives, and everything we've added since then, we try to keep that in our focus."
"Starting in the early nineties, I had the privilege of working with Keith at what was then Family Support Services overseeing a low-income housing program sponsored by the Farmers Home Administration," says Robert Askins, a longtime friend of Vire's. "At the time, we entered into this Self Help Housing program. Both Farmers Home Administration and HUD had refused to make home loans to individuals with developmental disabilities, citing a provision that the borrower must fully understand the terms of the mortgage. We continued working at both the federal and local levels, stressing that if a borrower must 'fully' understand the terms of his/her mortgage, then none of us would be homeowners. Because of Keith's vision and persistence, we were able to complete 28 new homes over the next five years and included several people with disabilities among the new homeowners. Even though that particular program has since ended, it helped to open the door for people with disabilities across the nation to become homeowners."
ASN has added a multitude of successful programs over the years. Some of its most successful are its wide range of vocational programs. There's a day program, which Vire calls "pre-vocational socialization," which serves as the base of the vocational programming. Through a series of classes and events, participants learn the basics of employment. The Supported Employment program helps a participant land a job, after which a job coach accompanies him until he feels secure enough to hold the job by himself. The Work Bridge program accepts referrals from other organizations and helps those people find out what kind of employment might suit them best through a discovery process.
"We used to say, in terms of job placement, 'What do you want to do now?'" notes Vire. "But now when they come in, we're more likely to say, 'OK, who are you?' to sort of help the person figure out what they might be interested in."
ASN has also had a great deal of success with their School Work Experience program.
"There's a thing that some researchers actually call 'the service cliff'," says Vire. "When you're in high school, you have all these services provided for you. The day you graduate, the next day, you've got nothing. It's like you just fell off a cliff. A school to work transition has been mandated but not really successfully. So we started working with local public schools and, as of now, we have 36 students this semester who come to us for some functional work experience and job shadowing. It's working pretty darn well. It has grown dramatically. We do a morning and afternoon session, and, if we had more space, I think that schools would send way more kids to us."
Point A to Point B
Vire leans forward when he talks about these initiatives, his voice vibrating with excitement. This is not a man who is weary of his task, ready to sit back and let others take the driver's seat. As it turns out, the motivation for setting his retirement date is as selfless as his 35-plus years of public service.
At his board's behest, a succession plan was put into place in the event that Vire left his post. Once that plan was public, Vire felt the only fair thing to do was to set an expiration date on it.
"I went to the board and said, 'You know, I'm a linear thinker,'" says Vire. "'To me, a plan has to have a point A and a point B, and we've done Point A. I think I need to give you a date.' They said, 'Oh, we didn't mean [for] that to happen.' I said to the board, 'Syard [Evans, deputy chief executive officer] is not going to wait for me to die. She is very talented and in demand.' So that's why I did it. I have this countdown thing on my phone that tells me how long I have left. I tell the board, 'I have 140-something days left,' and they say, 'Oh, you're counting down the days?' But it's not for the reason that most people do. I'm thinking of all the things I have to get done now and how short a time I have to do it."
Fundraising, for example, weighs on his mind. The competition for grants has gotten ever steeper in the crowded field of Northwest Arkansas nonprofit organizations, and the bigger foundations have narrowed their focus to a point that ASN is often left out of consideration. Vire longs to leave his successor with a rosy financial outlook.
And just because he's set a retirement date doesn't mean the good ideas aren't still percolating: He recently got the ball rolling on a plan to collaborate with the director of Arkansas Adult Education on a program to create a certificate program for adults with developmental disabilities to work in the direct care industry.
"There's research that says we're going to need 5 million more direct care workers for the elderly and people with disabilities by 2020," says Vire. "That's the fastest growing occupation in America. That's something we need to be concerned with." The idea has been on his mind for years now, and the idea that he finally got someone to latch onto it with him -- months before he retires -- seems to fill him with both gratitude and disappointment.
Jan, he adds, is relieved that he will no longer be making multiple trips to Little Rock on a weekly basis. Some time back, Vire got involved in policy making and has subsequently served on several boards and panels, lending his unique perspective and skill set to law making. And now he'll have more time to spend with his daughter, Julie, and her family -- which includes his grandson -- and his son, Kris, who is a senior editor for Time Out Chicago and one of Chicago's top theater critics.
"I wish Keith well in his retirement from Arkansas Support Network, but, honestly, [I] can't see him ever retiring completely," says Askins. "He will always be working somewhere as an advocate for those who are underprivileged and people with disabilities."
The twinkle in Vire's eye seems to confirm this prediction. He still has plans. Big plans.
"I don't think I'm used up, yet," he says, with a grin.
NAN Profiles on 09/10/2017
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