Fred Robinson received high honors from The Arc at the organization’s recent Annual Awards luncheon held at Spanish Hills Country Club.

Fred Robinson: Longtime leader of nonprofit The Arc retires

January 11, 2013
Santa Paula News

Fred Robison likes to say he grew up in the North 10th Street building that for decades held the now defunct Santa Paula Chronicle and then became home to the Heritage Valley Arc. But The Arc of Ventura County, which serves those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, itself grew up under Robinson’s 22 years of leadership.

Robinson retired at the end of the year from The Arc, an organization that was started in Santa Paula in 1954 and now serves more than 700 clients throughout Ventura County as a nationally recognized organization. When Robinson joined the organization in 1990, it had just a few hundred clients serviced primarily through five sheltered workshops.

Carol Wood remembers those days: an Arc employee for 19 years, she remembers when her now 45-year-old son Ronnie “got out of school and would go into the sheltered workshops,” the pay was just dollars a week. “Fred was the one that made sure that all the Arc participants that worked make the minimum wage... he was very strong about that.”

Such efforts have brought local, state and national recognition to Robinson, who was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in October at the National Conference of Executives of The Arc in Washington, D.C. He was saluted by the Tri-Counties Association for the Developmentally Disabled in November for his “lifelong dedication to helping to ensure that persons with developmental disabilities live fully and safely as active and independent members of our communities.”

Also in November Robinson was affectionately roasted at BlackBeard’s Seaside BBQ, a toast preceding The Arc of California board of directors meeting in Ventura, where local and state Arc officials lauded him for his efforts in strengthening the organization.

When Robinson joined Arc its annual budget was about $3 million to operate services from two locations. Now there are 13 locations and a $12 million annual budget.

Robinson had a hardscrabble childhood: “I started working at 10 years old,” and throughout his youth had to forego many activities, including the sports he wanted so strongly to play while a Santa Paula High School student. He aspired to be a certified auto mechanic and work on racecar diesel engines, but several of his teachers envisioned a different future for Robinson.

After challenging Robinson to write a scholarly paper, SPHS teacher Robert gave him a top grade and encouragement to consider more academics. It was an experience repeated at Ventura College.

Perhaps it was an innate desire to help people that led to Robinson becoming a licensed clinical social worker. He has a BA degree from Sacramento State University and a master’s degree in social work from San Diego State University. 

In 1969 Robinson began his career as a social worker at Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, and from 1973 to 1990 he worked at Tri-Counties Regional Center as director of case management, responsible for a staff of more than 100 serving 4,000 clients in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties with a $5 million annual budget. “I was up and coming in the disability services community,” and considered a prime candidate to eventually become the director of the regional center. 

Robinson, who also did training on disability law, met his career Waterloo in two formidable area women: Hazel Kay and Dorothy Smead, the latter whom he had known “all my life.... As a kid” he delivered the Santa Paula Chronicle to her home.  

“They asked me to come to The Arc as executive director, not CEO... I didn’t really want it but I figured I would for a few years then get back into the state system.... I never,” said Robinson, “went back.”

Instead, he began “the long process of building programs in every community,” and oversaw the organization’s well-subsidized relocation from Camarillo State Hospital property, an accomplishment Robinson describes as being “most proud of.... It was a real benefit for us.”

Robinson oversaw the creation of independent living curriculum, programs licensed by The Arc that provide revenue. There is also the result of his determination in “pushing real wages and real work for those with disabilities... the whole system had been workshops,” simple jobs paying sub-minimum wage that Robinson was instrumental in changing. 

If the developmentally disabled are to be considered “equal partners in life,” said Robinson, “you can’t treat them as second class citizens.... I took a lot of heat for not employing anyone unless they could make minimum wage,” but change did come. 

“Probably I’m the most proud of getting out in community,” giving those The Arc serves more visibility in society and in the community. “We changed that... and it’s one of the things we really like about Santa Paula,” the interaction with Arc participants and the community that Robinson said is “so accepting.”

“We really hate to see Fred go,” said Wood. “He’s so sensitive, so concerned and caring about everybody, whether clients or staff... he’s such a good person. You couldn’t ask for a better boss... or a friend. We’re going to miss him so much.”

Now what? Robinson said, “I’m not going to do anything for at least six months, then look at my options. I have some opportunities in Sacramento, I’m pretty good at public policy,” and he has had “some offers, maybe commute... I’m not leaving Santa Paula, that’s for sure,” and there are nearby grandchildren to spend more time with.

So Robinson isn’t going to be “retired” retired? “No... I have a lot of remodeling on the house” he and wife Sharon are looking forward to, “so I’ll concentrate on that for a while.” And a friend in the construction business made an offer to Robinson, who also knows framing and finish work.

But it’s too soon to think too hard of future endeavors: “I’ve been in the business for 43 years,” said Robinson. “I’m just tired... I’ve been working since I was 10 years old,” and The Arc was hard at times emotional work. “Even though it’s a great organization and I made a lot of friends, traveled,” it wasn’t always easy running the agency with 300 employees.

Said Robinson, “It’s a tough job, it’s not fun to do what you have to do,” including giving “friends of 20 years” the pink slip in times of funding cuts “to make sure the agency is viable. Running a large agency - even a good agency like Arc - you have issues every day.”

Robinson served a term on the City Council and was a highly recognized Mayor. He recently applied for a seat on the Planning Commission. 

But no matter what, Robinson said he won’t be idle: “Growing up the way I did, starting to work when I was so young... I guess that’s in my DNA now.”

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