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New CSAC leader has entrepreneurial past

MIDDLEBURY — Rachel Lee Cummings believes she won the lottery, and she didn’t even buy a ticket.
What she did was submit her resumé to the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) when the Middlebury-based nonprofit launched its search to replace longtime CEO Robert Thorn.
Cummings, 41, was ecstatic to land the job, which places her at the helm of the county’s largest mental health agency.
“I feel it’s such an interconnected part of the social fabric of Addison County,” she said of CSAC. “To be able to lead such an organization is such a privilege and an honor.”
Cummings has long been aware of CSAC’s work, in large part because she’s spent much time working in the human services field — primarily assisting senior citizens.
Her most recent job was as chief operating officer of Age Well, an Essex Junction-based nonprofit that delivers a variety of services for elderly residents of Addison, Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties in Vermont. Age Well runs programs authorized by the Older Americans Act, providing healthy meals, in-home care and community resources.
“I was part of the leadership team and oversaw all the client-facing services — care management nutrition programs and volunteer programs,” Cummings said of her Age Well responsibilities, which began in 2015. “I was also very involved working with our development team around fundraising efforts and marketing, and working statewide and regionally around health care reform.”
While she’s had no direct experience in the mental health industry, Cummings has helped her clients get such services.
“CSAC has always been on my radar, but executive directors (posts) don’t turn over very often,” Cummings said.
It was several months ago that Cummings left Age Well to study for a master’s degree in public health. She got wind of (Thorn’s) impending retirement, and decided to throw her hat into the ring.
Cummings did some more research on CSAC, and was particularly impressed with its innovative programs for people of all ages in need of counseling. She cited, as an example, the agency’s “Adventure-based Treatment Services” for youths, which include programs that involve horses and forests areas as part of clients’ healing process.
“They’re known as folks who think outside of the box in what drives them to meet community needs and their clients’ needs,” Cummings said. “I have an entrepreneurial background, and have always traveled a different path, so that was something that spoke to me.”
She demonstrated her entrepreneurial spirit while an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, founding Armistead Senior Care in 1999. Armistead — which she sold around eight years ago — provides non-medical home-based care, primarily to seniors living throughout Vermont and parts of New Hampshire. Armistead workers assist people with such tasks as bathing, dressing and housekeeping. They also offer companionship to further help older folks remain in their homes.
After selling Armistead, Cummings ran a business providing guardianship services, mostly to seniors. Probate court would assign her clients needing assistance managing their finances, health care and legal matters.
Counseling Service officials were clearly impressed with Cummings’ credentials. She emerged as one of three finalists who attended two days of extensive interviews at the agency. The CSAC board and Cummings announced a pact earlier this month.
“The board is very excited to have Rachel join CSAC as the new executive director,” said board President Louise Sandberg. “Rachel impressed us with her strong communication skills, her work ethic, and her ability to connect well with a wide variety of consumers and staff. She has spent her career in the human services area and is clearly passionate and empathetic about building a stronger community for all members of the community.”
Cummings will start her new position in February in order to overlap with Thorn, who’s retiring on March 31 after 40 years with the agency. The Independent on April 12, 2018, published an extensive article on Thorn’s accomplishments.
“I think it’s an interesting time to be involved in the ‘non-physical’ part of health care,’” Cummings said. “There’s so much happening in Vermont. I’ve always felt that health care doesn’t happen at your doctor’s office. It happens in your home, other avenues. And I feel it’s wonderful and critical that we’re starting to pay attention to mental health and integrating that into ideas of what it means to be healthy and how to deliver that care well.”
The Charlotte resident is looking forward to a long tenure with CSAC, but knows it will take a while for her to get up to speed with the organization and its employees.
“I think it’s going to take me a good solid year just to really get to know everybody,” she acknowledged. “I really want to be respectful of the culture that exists, and people’s experience… I’m looking to the team I work with to be the experts and help guide me in my education and decision making.”
HEALTH CARE BIG PICTURE
And she realizes she and the CSAC board will be called upon to make some big decisions as the health care system evolves at both the state and national levels.
“There are headwinds and a lot of change coming down the pike, and I will help guide the organization, but I’ve got really strong team members and staff to work with,” she said. “I feel ready and capable and excited.”
Cummings cited the state’s current shortage of health care workers, perennial under-funding of services, and correcting societal misconceptions about mental illness as additional challenges the agency will face.
“Funding is a chronic problem,” she said. “Everyone’s competing for a very small purse… We’re living in a very uncertain climate. We must make sure we’re good stewards of the budget, and … advocate on the state level to ensure adequate funding and funding parity.”
Cummings described her management style as collaborative.
“I feel like I’m a flexible and adaptive leader,” she said. “I’m not the expert in everything and I really rely heavily on my team to guide me.”
She’s always willing to put in the time needed to get the job done.
“First and foremost, I lead by example,” she said. “I hold myself to a really high standards in all the work I do. I try to be very timely. And I expect a lot from the people I work with. I’m pretty calm and consistent under pressure, and I feel the bar is set by my example as a leader. I take that responsibility very seriously.”
Cummings will have a lot of senior staff on hand to help her.
“I love walking into an organization that has such longevity; I think that’s a real strength, and I want to foster that,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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