As a doctoral student in the Department of Applied Behavioral Science at the University of Kansas, Mike Strouse’s career with GoodLife Innovations began under the recommendation of GoodLife board members Jim Sherman and Jan Sheldon. Thirty-five years later, Mike is still our President and CEO. We visited with Mike to look back on what’s changed over the years, what GoodLife is working on next, and what will always remain the same.
Mike, you’ve been a champion for our industry for your entire career. How have you seen the landscape evolve?
The biggest change is that funding hasn’t changed. The waiver system was created in Kansas in 1991 using tiered funding. Those five tiers still exist today. Yet as the cost of living and services has increased over almost 30 years, the funding has not kept up. In fact, we are close to having 30% less buying power today than we had in 1991. In Johnson County, Kansas, the cost of living is 18-20% higher than the rest of the state, yet the money per person remains the same across the state. In short, there is just so little money in a field with evolving needs. It’s incredibly challenging, yet it has been the driving force behind GoodLife’s creativity over the years. It’s also what fuels me personally to work hard for solutions every day.
What changes have you seen within GoodLife over the last 35 years?
Almost everything we’ve done is “the next thing”. We were the first to provide health and community services in small group homes for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD). This was unheard of at that time because most scholars felt that services for individuals with very significant needs were better suited for state institutions. As reports of a low quality of care within state institutions began to rise, in 1985 we became the third agency in the country to successfully pass a federal look-behind review, which is essentially a “care audit”. Suddenly, we became the little agency that could, and community programs like ours took root on a larger stage. If you know GoodLife’s history, you know what happens next—we were selected to close state institutions, and we created community living services for those residents based upon our service models. I was the lead consultant in the closing of Norton State Hospital (the first institution in Kansas), Winfield State Hospital, and a private institution in Topeka, Kansas. From there, we helped close 10 more institutions from Tennessee to California. Next, we became the first agency in the country to use technology for remote support services. We began development of iLink in 2000 when technology and the internet were still very young, making us the oldest smart-home demonstration in the country for people with I/DD. Jump to today and iLink has grown into so much more than remote support services. We use our technology to meet people at the moment of need. Now, what’s possible feels limitless.
So what you’re saying is that everything has changed.
Yes! Everything has changed for GoodLife in my 35 years. As the needs of the individuals we serve change, we continue to redefine how we deliver services. What remains the same is our mission to make a meaningful difference in the everyday lives of seniors, individuals with disabilities, and those who support them.
When you look back on your tenure, what is a favorite memory?
Without a doubt, the closing of Winfield State Hospital in 1998. Winfield was home to 250 individuals with the most challenging needs, so it was a surprise when the legislature selected that institution to close. When it did, GoodLife stepped up and built new homes and created services for approximately 138 people in 14 months. We included parents and families in the development to educate them on what’s possible for their loved ones in an inclusive and supportive community. It was so cool to see families change from institutional advocates to community advocates—I literally witnessed lives change.
Mike, you’ve accomplished a lot. What are you most proud of?
When I started, there were two homes with about a $300,00 annual budget. Now, our budget is close to $30 million, and we have homes in 19 counties across Kansas. More importantly, we have developed $70-80 million of annual budgeted services that we don’t own. As institutions close, we’ve expanded or created new programs and leveraged our mission through other people. We are educating and training agencies and organizations on labor strategy, technology, and program design, and I’ve probably seen over 100 graduate students develop skills through the GoodLife/KU partnership in my tenure. To watch our little agency transform more and more lives across the country each year is very special. I’m proud of what we do, but I’m incredibly proud that we help other providers improve staff pay and create communities where individuals feel connected and well-cared-for.
We heard you witnessed history for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Yes, I sure did. Gary Blumenthal, a Kansas legislator who later went on to be the Executive Director of the President’s Committee on Intellectual Disabilities, invited me to witness the signing of an amendment to the Act under the Clinton administration. We fought hard—and are still fighting—for inclusion and equality for the I/DD community, and our models and services challenged what was possible. To be in the room and shake hands with individuals that helped move the world forward was a special day.
Give us an example of a time GoodLife fell forward, turning a challenge into a victory.
With technology, that’s the name of the game, right? A perfect example of this is our Family Teaching Model: a supported living arrangement where an individual, couple, or family shares their home with a person with I/DD. It’s a great model, and one we still use today. But early on, we noticed that the costs were getting too high for some couples to manage, so we had to shift. What resulted was a neighborhood with different care models within it. Something that was working well stopped working, but with technology and creativity, we made it even better.
Mike, what are you excited about in 2020?
Making complicated things simple is my greatest excitement. This year, we are rolling out senior living services as an alternative to assisted living and long-term care facilities. Our care model is redefining care for seniors in a way that allows them to remain independent and age in place. Couples no longer have to be separated as care needs change because our technology allows seniors to receive varying levels of care at home, at the time of need, within a connected community. I’m proud to say our technology amplifies humanity by creating communities where life remains full of possibilities, and that’s worth investing in. And even though it’s been 35 years, I feel like I’m just getting started.
Want to partner with GoodLife to redefine what’s possible for independent living? Let us know!