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Syard Evans is the CEO of the Arkansas Support Network of Springdale, which provides direct support services to about 500 developmentally disabled people in Arkansas.
But she will tell you that she isn’t really in charge. The true leaders of the Arkansas Support Network are those who need and receive the organization’s services.
Evans said that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the organization did some introspection and came out of the pandemic truly focused on the individuals it is designed to help. The pandemic was “disorienting and life-changing” for ASN, Evans said, and caused it to install procedures to make the nonprofit better.
“One of the commitments we made early on, in order for us to problem-solve and troubleshoot, as we continue to serve and support them, we have to understand their perspective,” Evans said. “Focus on leadership by the most impacted. That’s a term I say a lot. I reinforce to our teams a lot that the decisions that we are making reflect leadership by the most impacted.
“Instead of just making decisions about the folks we support and what needs to happen and what our services need to look like, we are really invested in strategies to ensure we are giving decision-making power to the people we support.”
Evans and the Arkansas Support Network did more than talk about it. She hired the “amazing” Kasey Hodges, who has cerebral palsy, as the organization’s director of ethics and mission integration. She makes sure the organization’s operations are helpful and wanted by those it is trying to assist.
The Arkansas Support Network also created an advocate advisory council made up of disabled clients who receive support from the ASN. The council immediately requested better staff training and recommended changes in the curriculum.
“They have become a really powerful voice in looking at how we operate, what we do and how we do,” Evans said. “They lay out priorities for us. [They said,] ‘We would like you to train direct support professionals better.’”
Evans, who became CEO in 2018 after 18 years with ASN, said the future is bright for the organization, which was founded in 1988. “We have been doing this for a long time,” Evans said. “We are stronger than we have ever been.”