By Denise M. Baran-Unland
NEW LENOX – Philosophy major Art Dykstra needed a summer job, so he approached a dentist and his wife who were seeking someone to help their son improve their football game.
Or so Art thought. Because why else would they ask for a football player?
It turned out the couple had an autistic son and needed some respite.
“It was very sad,” Art said. “They were captives in their home. They couldn’t go out and do anything because their son was a big kid and when he had a temper tantrum, he destroyed the house. They wanted someone to play with him and not harm him. So I took the job – it paid pretty well – and I’d go there three nights a week.”
Art, who has been the executive director of Trinity Services for 30 years, is stepping down at the end of 2017. Art’s son Thane Dykstra, Trinity’s current chief operating officer, will take over as CEO.
Art became fascinated with autism and its origins. Instead of minoring in psychology, Art went on to earn his master’s degree in clinical psychology from Bradley University in Minnesota.
After completing a psychology internship at Elgin State Hospital in Illinois, Art embarked on a 20-year career with the Illinois Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, according to a news release from Trinity Services.
During that time, Art served as facility director for two state-operated developmental centers. He then served as the Chicago regional administrator for developmental disabilities for seven years. He also working as a policy and program adviser to the director of the department.
Art said the beginning of his career resembled “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next.”
“We might have 50 or 60 people sleeping in the same room in cots 4 feet apart with no privacy from one another,” Art said.
The primary treatment modality at the time, especially for someone with depression, was electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which Art called “a nightmare.” Even back then, Art saw the humanness in his clients and related to them on that level, taking them to church and bringing them to his home for visits.
“When Thane [Art’s son and incoming CEO] was a baby, about a year old, I would take him to the back ward in Elgin,” Art said. “I would give him to the clients and they would pass him around and hold him and love him.”
Art said he “got in trouble for it” because it was deemed unsafe.
“They said I couldn’t do it anymore so I brought my dog,” Art said. “And they said I couldn’t do that anymore.”
Trinity Services hired Art as president and CEO in 1987. At the time, Trinity, with a budget of $500,000 and 33 employees operated just two programs: a school and a developmental training center, the release said.
Today, Trinity is a statewide organization with 1,200 employees and a $56 million budget. It operates 12 major programs, which include programs for people with mental illnesses, children and adult with developmental disabilities, and individuals on the autism spectrum, the release said.
Trinity also operates a number of support businesses, of which two are also adult learning programs. In addition, more than 650 people receive residential support from Trinity, the release said.
Art has taught classes at the undergraduate and graduate level in psychology, public administration and executive leadership at state and public universities. He has spoken about leadership organizational culture, strategic planning and systems thinking at local, state and national conferences. And he has written authored numerous journal articles, publications and thought pieces, the release also said.
Now Art hasn’t yet learned what causes autism. But he has learned about treatment systems, public policy (“Maybe more than I wanted to know,” Art said about public policy), the rights of people with disabilities and ways to help them become more successful and direct their own lives.
He’s seen the advance of psychotropic medications and the integration of people with disabilities into the community. He’s learned how to successfully address their needs.
“I’m also aware of the fact that if you want to be successful, you have to be value-based, something I’ve tried hard to do,” Art said. “”We make sure we put the people first and build the systems around them ... It’s been a very human service education, I guess.”
At 74, Art is stepping down at CEO because he feels the role needs one who can consider the future instead of someone wondering “if I’m going to be alive in 10 years,” Art said.
“I think a leader has to spend at least a third of the time worrying about the future,” Art said. “Just putting out fires makes for an unhealthy organization.”
But Art isn’t cutting his connection with Trinity. He will become executive director of the Trinity Consulting Group, which will be a separate organization from Trinity Services.
He also plans to continue developing High Tide Press, Trinity’s publishing arm, which produces books and other media material on disabilities and leadership.
In fact, Art said, he is currently finishing editing a book on attention deficit disorder.
“So I’m still going to stay engaged,” Art said. “It’s become part of my identity, I guess.”