The Allegheny Valley School

By Ben Wecht

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention; perhaps it’s the mother of philanthropy, too.

With the decline of American orphanages after World War II and the foster care system not yet receiving the kind of government support it enjoys today, communities across the nation faced some tough challenges. One of those was right here in western Pennsylvania, when the closure of The Pittsburgh Home for Babies threatened to leave 10 children considered “unadoptable” out in the cold.

Enter Patricia Hillman Miller, a childhood polio survivor and sister of Henry L. Hillman. In 1960, with help from friends Bob Prince and Doug Hannah, she founded the Allegheny Valley School (AVS) in a turn-of-the-century mansion on West Prospect Avenue in the city’s Crafton-Ingram neighborhood. In the ensuing years, she also established the Polk Foundation, which, in concert with other Hillman Family Foundations, has since helped AVS grow into a multi-faceted non-profit social service organization that cares for nearly 900 individuals through 125 community residential environments and therapeutic programs statewide.

“Polk has been instrumental in everything we’ve done,” says Dorothy Hunter Gordon, AVS’s longtime chief development officer. “They’ve really helped us become a high-quality organization. We’re very fortunate and grateful to our donors, who understand our needs and support our efforts.”

At AVS, which was acquired by NHS Human Services, Inc, in 2008, most of the residents are diagnosed with profound intellectual and developmental disabilities and most also have multiple physical disabilities and medical complications, including behavioral support. Its mission is to provide quality programs and facilities to help this fragile population live with purpose and dignity, and to provide opportunities and choices for our clients to grow and function at their full potential as independently as possible.

It is serious work, and it requires serious funding. With an operating budget of $125 million, AVS draws some 99% of its revenue from Medicaid reimbursements, which provide for care and treatment, as well as housing, food, utilities, medications and the salaries of its dedicated staff. Other expenditures are covered by the community-supported Capital Development Fund. But approximately 1% of AVS’s revenues, or $1.25 million, comes from private donors like Hillman. Since the initial 1967 Polk Foundation grant, the foundations have made some 113 grants to AVS totaling more than $9.4 million. It’s money that is enabling AVS to launch some exciting and long-needed new initiatives.

One of those is the Memory Care Demonstration Project, which seeks to increase support for clients who are showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, as well as for their families and other caregivers. With the help of an initial Polk grant in 2011 and further support for the opening of a residential home on its Pittsburgh campus in 2014, AVS has since enhanced systems for screening, diagnosis and tracking neurological diseases; provided clients with special programming in cognitive and sensory development; and offered new mechanisms to help families cope with declining health. As a bonus, through a connection made with the National Task Group on Intellectual Disabilities and Dementia Practices (NTG) during the development of the project, AVS is has hosted NTG training on its Pittsburgh campus.

Another bold new initiative is in the area of communications technology, where AVS is working to improve residents’ quality of life by helping them leverage the Internet to stay in touch with family and friends, communicate with members of the support team, and acquire basic computer skills. Through a partnership with assistive technology developer AbleLink, AVS has adopted a software platform that enables residents to access a user portfolio and easily navigate by touch according to special interests.

AVS’s third major programmatic thrust is the so-called “Smart Home,” now in operation in Aliquippa, Beaver County. With features including a kitchen with cabinets that lower to counter height and lights that are turned on and off with an iPad, the four men living there now are enjoying greater independence and a higher quality of life than they otherwise would. The flagship Smart Home has been enough of a success that a second one is being built now in Allegheny County.

None of this comes without challenges, which include stagnant funding from state and federal agencies, a growing population of those requiring services, and the ongoing need to maintain and improve facilities to continue to meet professional standards and community expectations. On top of that, AVS is hoping to build on its recent implementation of communication and other assistive technology.

But as Gordon sees it, AVS is up to every one of these challenges, and worthy of the support it takes to meet them.

“Having exceptional programs and incredibly dedicated staff members is of extreme importance to us,” she says. “We focus on improving the lives of those we serve, to help them live to their fullest potential. We want to continue to innovate and take ourselves into the future so we can continue to be a quality provider.”