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Podcast – The One Thing with Ben Stortz of Cornerstone Services

Friday, March 4, 2022
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We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Ben Stortz, President and CEO of one of our nonprofit clients, Cornerstone Services. This organization serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Illinois (specifically Joliet and the greater Will County area). The agency is a recognized leader in providing the support necessary for individuals with disabilities to live and work in the community. Last year, Cornerstone helped 108 people find jobs – and in past years, their efforts to place people in jobs resulted in $1.8 million worth of wages.

Nonprofit organizations have faced many challenges during the pandemic, but it’s important for them to find new innovative ways to carry out their mission. For example, when many nursing homes were overcrowded, Cornerstone took this opportunity to establish a new program to address this issue. The Comprehensive Community Transition Program (based in the Kankakee area) transitioned eligible residents in the Kankakee area out of nursing homes and into the Cornerstone community, where they would be able to benefit from their support and services. The agency worked with providers to assess residents, find out what support they needed, move them into the community and help them get settled. It was difficult to start a new program in the midst of the pandemic, but Cornerstone staff were up to the challenge and succeeded. It ended up being one of the top-performing programs in the state, and the organization exceeded its goals for the year.

Times are challenging, but unique opportunities await, and many people need to be served. In Cornerstone’s case, many people are on the state’s waiting list for services. It’s a balancing act trying to serve the community while taking care of all of the issues agencies are facing. Cornerstone is working collaboratively with the state of Illinois and the legislature to increase funding for their services and awareness of their campaigns. The agency continues to work hard to earn community support, holding its annual raffle this spring.

Many nonprofits attribute their success to their staff members, who are fondly referred to as the “backbone of an organization.” But as the labor market continues to grow more competitive over these past few years, many agencies find themselves struggling with staff shortages, which has resulted in many employees working extra shifts and putting in overtime hours. Because of this, organizations find it challenging to expand their operations when their staff is working tirelessly to manage what they have.

The “secret recipe” for combating this issue has yet to be found, but a combination of different factors may help. Cornerstone has put a special emphasis on workplace culture and making an effort to support their people the minute they walk through the door. They are focusing on ways to increase funding, provide more wages and promote flexibility for their staff.

Listen to our podcast above for the full interview with Ben Stortz on how Cornerstone is working to overcome the challenges that many nonprofits are facing.

 

Transcript

Hello, and welcome to the one thing podcast brought to you by the Horton Group. We’re at the Horton Group of specialized Insurance employee benefits and risk advisory. And I’m your host, Jason Helfert. We’re excited today. They have on the podcast. A friend, a client and partner of the Horton Group president and CEO of Cornerstone Services headquarter, out of Joliet, Illinois. Ben Stortz. How you doing Ben? Great Jason. Thanks for having me today. You know, you’re very welcome, very welcome. And want to say again. Thanks for the recommendation to the restaurants last week. They’re going to come in handy and got a very, very, very serious question. I want to start the podcast with its kind of on the heels of that question. So, About it. You got to get it right? Because whether or not you get a right could impact our friendship. You ready? Okay, Jason, I’m ready. All right, is Ben Stortz. A sweet or savory guy gotta get, right? You at you, interesting, you ask this question. Jason. I’m going to give you a little response. So we did an exercise like this with our management team where we did a five things you could find out about somebody else. And I got down to a staff person and it was with Julie and we had, we got down to is it sweet or savory? And I was sweet and she was Savory. So we did a mash up on that one. So I’m more of a sweet guy. Well, that’s all right. I’m Savory. But half, my family is sweet. So I think we’ve got it wrong. Shoot the right. It’s right. We’re still friends. And my kids will give me you know, kind of crap for not being a sweet guy to because they loved it, but that’s okay. But anyways, thanks for indulging me and the little commentary but I think most people been are gonna know who Cornerstone is. We said, I’ll listening to this today and most we’re going to have been stored says, but maybe as a refresher or who let don’t know. Can you share a little bit about you? And Cornerstone services. That be great. Jason. I think a lot of people do know about us, but I think there is also lots of facets to our relation that people don’t know about. So a little bit about Cornerstone. So Cornerstone Services has been around it hard to believe. They’ve been around for over 50 years. We’ll be celebrating our 53rd year of operations. This coming year, you know, it’s a great organization. Cornerstone. Our mission is to help people with disabilities to live and work in the community. So the the groups that we work with, we work with individuals with intellectual developmental, disabilities. We also work with individuals who have Behavioral Health needs are or issues with mental health. So, you know, we provide a wide array of services to that population and in a wide range, that covers the Joliet Will County area and we also provide services in the Khaki region as well. So we tailor our services to meet the needs of the people that are referred to to us. And, you know, we’ve been doing it for over 50 years and we continue to evolve our services into the meet, the demands of the people that we serve and just an excellent organization. I’m so proud to work here, and we have excellent staff to help carry out our mission. Yeah, that’s and I will tell you, you have a wonderful brand, you have a wonderful reputation as being a, not only a thought, leader in the space, but somebody that really runs and cares for a really, well, one or agency and cares about the people that are doing it. Long time and and I think that starts don’t start but certainly as I think you have a big role in that as far as your leadership style. And so how did you come to Cornerstone? Sister saying is if you’re just saying that it kind of reminds me of my story a little bit, probably people will be surprised or learn on this on this video this podcast but my background is Not Human Services, Social Services. I think I can probably say that now after being in this arena for 22 years, I think. Think I’m playing probably a safe place, but it’s not what I went to school for. If you can believe that or not, Jason my, I went to school. I’m an accounting. Major of all things, the CPA. So and so I was kind of, you know, a numbers guy. And so my first job out of school is working for Caterpillar. So Global, you know, multinational company operations all over the world and I was my first job assignment. I was placed in the Joliet facilities. Interesting. Small world, quick story. As I went into work the first day and I said, across the desk, kind of, like we’re doing here but virtually, but from the controller for the Juliet plant and up. He said, you remember who I am. And I’m sorry. I can’t. His name is Jim Miller. How many Jim Miller’s are there in the world? And it ends up by bold with his son, when we were younger and it all kind of came back to me. Look at him. So that’s how I ended up in Joliet. But as I worked at that location, I got to know. Two Gentlemen to wonderful gentleman that we’re on the board of directors at Cornerstone and one just recently. Retired from the board. The other ones still continues to be on the board, but there’s an opportunity to head up the accounting and finance area Cornerstone and they weren’t pushing me, do it. They’re they’re just say hey, it’s an opportunity if you want to pursue it and I was like, well do I want to do this? You want to leave large for-profit Corporate America to go to you know, relatively small not-for-profit in a world that I didn’t know. And good question. I thought you know what? This is a good opportunity. Charity, if I don’t like it, then I’ll go do something else and I thought it might be a good Resume Builder for me. So I came to Cornerstone 22 years ago, and I’m still here. So I think you see that I love what we’re doing. You know, it’s just I gained more responsibilities over the years. I’ve been the CEO for about the past ten, eleven years now at 10 years it is and you know, it’s such a great organization. I love working with the people here. You know, it’s we are a people organization, you know, we’re helping people but it’s also working with our staff every day to make sure we can carry out our mission and services and I know it’s a cliche and you say, you know, you really are making a difference in people’s lives, but you really do, see it every day. Just how we’re making a difference and making an impact in the 100%, I couldn’t agree more with Ian. I think you’re one of those guys that when I talk through that when they share their stories about Cornerstone or what they do, you always late up her, right? So that’s a Telltale sign of me that, hey, this person really enjoys what they’re doing now and they Joy. Why they do it? Because I think that’s that’s, that’s that’s awesome. And it’s a pretty cool story you had him. I’m sure there were some good times along the way and some challenges along the way and that kind of brings us. I think to where we are today, you know, there are a lot of challenges. Has that remember that you’re being presented with, that were presented with that and everybody’s been presented with and I, you know, we’ve talked about this before that. We’re in a period now where things just feel heavy, right? I mean, a lot of discussions that you talk to your neighbors, about your friends, about your co-workers, about revolver on a pandemic, or, or with politics. And, you know, we’d know about the challenges with the mental health of the youth, and even the adult population, and it just seems like everything. Heavy, right? And you’ve been a refresher to me because you’ll always you look knowledge that. They say yet, you know, Jason, but not everything’s heavy. There’s positive stuff. And a quote, from a, one of my favorite professors and you probably know him as professional Dumbledore from the Hadith the Harry Potter series. He says that happiness can be found. Even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the lights. Right, and I love that. And so if you can if you were Professor Dumbledore, just for this podcast, right? What’s one story you want to share? How could you turn on the light for the all the people listening? So what’s that one thing going on at Cornerstone right now? That’ll put a smile on everybody’s face. So there’s several so it’s very hard to pick from one. But the one that comes to mind for me right now is You know, who would think during the pandemic, Cornerstone would start a new program. How many agencies would do that or take on that type of responsibility, but, but we did, we’re always kind of looking for the new opportunities. How can we help serve the community, and we’ve started a program in our Kankakee region. It’s referred to as the comprehensive Community transition program. It’s a program that’s funded by the state of Illinois. Whereby. We’re working with a, we’re working with one of the area nursing homes to help transition. Russian people out of the nursing home and into the community to provide them that community life that they can really benefit from. The kind of they’ve been inappropriately placed there. They just have the proper supports to live in the community. They could do. So, so when I’m so proud of their is that the great team that has been built there and the outstanding work they’ve done, is we’ve been able to transition out that beyond our Target for the year and with a top performer in the state and doing so. And just to hear the great success stories of people, how well they’re doing now, living in the community that, you know. It’s hard to start a program during a pandemic in want to do that. But our staff were up to the challenge. Took it on and you know doing outstanding work there. So I’m really proud of our efforts that area. That’s that’s very timely to, right? And so least the narrative here. I don’t have numbers on, it’s open if I’m wrong, you could tell me. Is that the narrative is that a lot of nursing homes, are being flooded with individuals. Right? I mean, the pandemic. And so, the nursing homes are now filled with people that are certainly that need to be there. Right? But also that have Of incentives. And it’s not some of them are maybe not the best place for everybody to stay. And so, I think the opportunity to bring people out of there and into a community setting right into a place that Cornerstone can help. I don’t know if it’s is, it was it was it by Design was this by Design going into the pandemic or was this in response to? Hey, look, we identified an issue. We need a solution because people are not getting the services. They might need. Well, it kind of a combination of both. Jason. I was a program the state had been running for a while, but they decided to Retool it and two more or less letter provider like Cornerstone handle things from start to finish. There was too many bottlenecks in the process before into many handoffs and they said, let’s work with providers. So they can handle from start to finish to, you know, assess someone provide find out what supports they need. Move them to community and support them once they’re there. And so it was pre-pandemic, you know, I think we’ve received the contract in February maybe or March of 2020. So, right, when that Right there maquette. It’s a we had our unique challenges when that started, you know, I you know, we did we didn’t start, you know going right away with the program and get off to you know, Warrior transition people right away, but we took our time to appropriately, set up the program and work through the challenges of working with nursing homes during covid and still be able to transition people. And you know, we’ve got a great program going there now, so it’s really a credit to the dedication of our staff and yeah, I can’t can’t highlighted enough in that. Government throughout her agency. Just wonderful staff that we have that are really the backbone of our organization, 100%, right? And any business especially Human Service Providers, right? I mean whether you’re a DSP or even a manager that’s it’s wildly important impactful and I feel they sometimes don’t get enough credit for all the work they do and there’s a shout out to all the dsps out there that are providing Services. Now, is this sort of has been, I know that some providers that are geographically little wider, right? So you’re not just in Julia. Yet. And so these Services provided across your, the Cornerstone family, or they, in Joliet, right now. They’re looking to take them other places, this service specific Services just provided in the Kankakee region and okay gigi. I’m sorry. Okay. Yeah, but we’re looking at possible expansion. The state’s actually talk to us about that as a possibility down the road. You’re assigned a certain nursing home to work with. So there’s a possibility of expanding this program down the road and we’re looking at other ways to expand as well. You know, that’s always in our mission is to help new ways to reach people. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention. We’ve also started an initiative of home-based services. You’re probably familiar with that as well as during the pandemic. We said, what about home-based Services as well? And, you know, we’re enrolling people in that program as well. We see that as a new service in our area that, you know, is kind of it’s not provided right now as much as we would like and you know, it’s going to complement our other services that we have with our day. Programs our residential program. Um, so, you know, we’re looking at ways to diversify what we’re doing but also meet the needs and you know, we know that there’s a lot of people that are out there in need of service and we want to best meet that demand. I applaud you. And I mean if you the Bears just hired a new head coach. All right, if you don’t even knew that but I didn’t hear a suit that I met him briefly us. So he’s a new poem but there’s a famous saying by a coach. And I think that your agency right now is living this is that Marv Levy. The once great coach of the bills. He said adversity is an opportunity for heroism. Mmm. Right. And so what you’ve just shared with me is adversity at its highest level, right? I mean lends itself very well to people to step up and take action, right? And make an impact. And so those that’s I got a little chill sir. I got a sweater on, but that kind of stuff makes me. You happy, it makes me smile. Makes me proud of you and the whole agency there, but I’m also. Not. But in a day, I’m not naive, right? And so we know that there are challenges and so even with expanding new services and a pandemic or non pandemic time, right? So, even when the skies are aligned stars, are aligning things are great. There are challenges. And when you sit at your leadership table, or you talk to the your staff, or you talk to your clients, you talk to parents Guardians other service providers. What are those big challenge? Yeah, so maybe to put a little context to that question as well as that, you know, I think we’re all dealing with covid still. So that’s an added layer of things in terms of challenges. And again, I want to highlight the great efforts of our staff during the this pandemic through that, you know, they’re going to extra lengths to make sure people are taken care of. We’ve had staff that have lived in some of our group homes, to help provide services. Make sure people are taking care of work, extra shifts, extra hours our management. Is putting in extra hours and make sure people are cared for, so they’ve just done a tremendous job. So I wanted to highlight that but also there’s a challenge with that as well. I think across the country, people are knowing that there’s, there’s a staffing shortage and and we’re feeling it as well at Cornerstone. We wish we had more staff that we could help. So we did have to have staff working as many overtime hours or working as many shifts. It’s in it’s not a unique challenges to Cornerstone and the After agencies that I work with, they’re all filling the same issues and problems. We’d like to grow Services more than what we’ve been able to. But it, but it’s it’s to the lack of Staff. We wish we could get more people in the door to do. So, I will give some credit to the state of Illinois. They’ve recognized this problem. They created a great study to address this. There has been some more money put into our system to help address Staffing, but the study that they conduct it was pre-pandemic. And, you know, still sense. Then there’s a lot more pressures in competitive labor force right now. So the number one challenge we are facing is, you know, how do we staff up our programs and make sure we have an adequate staff compliment that we can provide the services that people need. So yeah, we’re hearing that too. And so again, it thank you for sharing that and I realized the question. I’m going to ask you. You’re going to answer if I had that answer, I wouldn’t be it wouldn’t be an issue. Right, but have you seen providers? That do a better job with the Staffing challenges, right? And what are they doing it? And what’s working? What’s not working? Is Again, part of our listening audience is going to look for the look up to the most, the most well-run agencies such as Cornerstone. So they’re going to ask. Okay, Ben. What are you doing? Right? What have you seen working? What hasn’t been working and maybe not a lot has been working. I don’t, I don’t know the answer, but just want to get your thoughts on that. Yeah, I think everybody is trying different things to really help support. Their organization and make it makes tries. I don’t think anybody has found the secret recipe or this is the one thing that makes it and I don’t think it is. One thing. I think it’s going to be a series of things that were able to do. We’re trying a few different things and hoping that a combination of things will help it and I think the one thing that we’re really trying to work on his culture. I think the culture of an organization is very important that we want to make sure people are supported when they come in the door to us and that, you know, there that they have the support of the team. Team. And you know that we’re helping them with their day-to-day. And so we’re looking at ways to help impact that as well. But again, it’s such a competitive, labor market, people have lots of options right now. And so I think it’s a combination of things of trying to work on culture. How can we help to increase funding, to help provide more wages? Cut? What can we do from flexibility for staff? I think that’s one thing we’ve really stressed. Is, we’re going to be as flexible as we can with staff provide time off when they need it. Making sure they’re taken care of things outside of work. So, when they’re at work, it can be there. You know, the best version of themself. So I think in a lot of things that can be worked on to help improve that, but it is a unique challenge right now. So yeah, I appreciate what you said. The last part about, we’ll all of it. But if particular last part where hey, look, these are the people that are working in your agency are moms. Dads, sisters brothers, right? They have families, right? That you have children. I have to, I have children. So, you go home, and you have challenges and issues outside of work, right? And I think, People not nonprofit agency Pacific and we do I mean it manufacturers contractors think sometimes we lose sight of that, right? We talked about. How can we make their day better at work which is wildly important, right? It is first and foremost, but how do we make their day better? When they leave? Right? Right. And I think we lose sight of that. So I wonderful call out to you as leader of the organization that says hey, you know what? Hey team, let’s flip our lens here a little bit. All right, look outside of the workplace. As well and that’s that point well taken, so thank you. I’m going to take that. I’m going to know when I get on the podcast to and speaking of lens if you look through your lens. Alright as a CEO or a larger organization and Illinois and what’s what’s the future look like? Yeah. They know what’s your forecast? And you know, what do we need to change and how could the general public can they help? All right, so, Of the Dons. Some of the service providers in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, I guess State agnostic here. Alright, well, I think you as used talked about earlier that it is a challenging times. There is a verse we going on, but there’s opportunities as well. I think there’s a lot of people that need to be served. There’s lots of people that are on the state’s waiting list for services. We need to get to them, but we need to help address some of our issues that we have now. So I think it’s working collaboratively with the state of Illinois, the legislature to help increase. Funding for our services. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of creating awareness. We’ve been part of the, they deserve more campaign promoting the importance of dsps and you know, we’ve worked with organizations like, ir and others to help, you know, promote the importance of investing in our services. So I think there’s some unique opportunities ahead that we can make some inroads there and from the Cornerstone perspective. I think we’re going to continue to do some of the things that we’ve done very well over the years would be I’ve helped house numbers of people that are homeless and have mental illness and help provide housing to them. We’re looking at expanding some of those programs. We’re going to continue to help provide employment for people. Last year. We helped 108 people find jobs. I just looked at a report before we got on here, the first six months of this year. We’ve helped 60 people. So, we’re looking at ways to help continue That Into, You Know, grow our services that way. Then I think, as I mentioned before, home-based Services, we’re looking at how we can grow that service as an agency as well to help meet the needs of people. So, I think there’s some challenging times ahead but it’s some exciting times as well. And I think if we can really focus on the Staffing issue and help address that. I think that, you know, that’s the foundation, there really will help support us to make sure that we’re able to provide the services. We like to move forward. I hope so too because they’re wildly important to mention that people of job placement over. 100 people. You’ve helped find a job. I mean, that’s not like anyone sitting like that. That’s that’s, that’s phenomenal. Oh, yeah, I’ll do it. And I’ll have to I haven’t done the math on this yet. But I did it a couple of years ago when we help people find jobs and it translated to 1.8 million dollars worth of wages that year. And so people wonder do these programs have an impact to they are they meaningful. Well, heck. Yeah, they are. Yeah. Yeah, you know, it helps people to become more self-sufficient. They were able to help control more of their lives. They are able to, you know, do things that they would like to in this world. You know, it has It has an economic impact as well, you know, people are creating jobs and helping create more tax revenue to and, you know, people are working people when they’re engaged do better. So I think that there’s so many positive aspects from our programs that really helped impact our communities. And in terms of that, I would be remiss to, if I didn’t say that the great Community Support cornerstones had, you know, you talk about our great reputation, but a lot of that student that people recognize is a good organization. They’ve supported it. We’ve got great Community Support. During the pandemic with people, making additional contributions of the agency. We’ve got our annual spring raffle coming up this spring, which I’ll probably hit you up on as well. Please do but that’s a great fundraiser for us as well too. So I think Community Support is very instrumental to and helping us carry out our missions. So for all you potential donors out there, we’re looking for a wonderful agency to sponsor who has impact studies to deliver to you. In regards. The amount of people. They serve try to jobs. They create economic impact to the The community look no further than Cornerstone services and so bad. I want to say thank you very much for being on the podcast, your partnership and friendship mean the all absolute world to us. Thank you Jason, and I want to say the same for you as well. Hortons been a great partner for Cornerstone. You guys have helped us tremendously with our lines of insurance from our health to a property, casualty to our workers comp. We’ve made tremendous improvements, on our organization. That says, help provide an impact. I think it’s helped with Our employee base and then other what strip down to our services, so I appreciate our partnership with you as well. Well, thank you, sir. I really appreciate them. And so that’ll wrap it up for today. So on behalf of the Horton Group, I’m Jason Holford saying thank you for listening to the one thing podcast.

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