At eight years old, the Chicago Tribune received a letter from this young woman asking how she could help others. That was the earliest indicator of what this incredible woman would achieve. In high school, Dr. Charlene Bennett started volunteering her time to assist those with disabilities. Her passion to help others is reflected in all areas of her life. Dr. Bennett’s passion began by helping others get around after school or on the weekends. It continued through a job with the State of Illinois. While working for the state, she and her team were responsible for holding Medicaid funded facilities, and others to the required levels of security and safety based on the law. Dr. Bennett’s efforts resolved numerous problems in the state-funded programs for those with disabilities. Their efforts ensured human dignity for everyone involved. Her incredible 43 years of experience has benefited countless lives.
Dr. Charlene Bennett’s efforts developed a regular quality assurance process for every state-funded facility. Because of her incredible record with the state, helping both children and adults in need, she was recognized for her work on more than one occasion. When it was time to move out of the public sector, she and her partner were moved to continue the work they began. Individual Advocacy Group was founded in 1995. Due to their history and ability to overcome obstacles and help others do so, they began helping the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. From that starting point, they have grown to become a community provider in both Illinois and Washington, D.C.
Charlene Bennett started helping others at a young age and has continued through her whole life. When she was only 22 years old, she became the school director in a Chicago school district where she focused on those students with special needs. As she continued to work in this capacity, she pursued and achieved her doctorate. Dr. Charlene Bennett’s greatest joy is knowing her work has been life-changing for many people. Her work from the time she was a child has been to empower, support, and encourage others. This hard-working, goal-oriented woman continues to pursue excellence in all those she encounters.
How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?
I have seen many sad conditions that people with disabilities were forced to live in. It was heart-wrenching to watch people suffer a less than dignified existence. While I worked for the state, we enforced the state expectations for institutional living as well as for community-based residential homes. Through that effort, we developed a plan for consistent quality assurance. Many places that were unable or unwilling to meet those dignified standards were forced to close. Those that remained open were success stories for the changes made and the lives affected.
When I left my job with the state, I knew I wanted to drive more change. We founded Individual Advocacy Group based on improving the quality of life and creating safe, happy environments. We hope to give people a different way of doing things and giving people, the forgotten ones, choice, and opportunity.
How long has Individual Advocacy Group been operating?
It has been in operation since I left my position with the State of Illinois in 1995. We began Individual Advocacy Group shortly thereafter.
How does Individual Advocacy Group operate?
Individual Advocacy Group is a not-for-profit organization with a board of directors. Many members of the board have family members with disabilities. One of the programs that has been exceptionally progressive is to place people in their own leased homes with 24 hours support provided by IAG. We also have a housing advocacy division that assists them in finding their own homes and provides them with free legal advice to assist with their leases.
What is the primary mission of Individual Advocacy Group?
We are here to provide utmost quality support to people so they can live the most humane and dignified life possible. We are here to enable people to live a life in a community, naturally integrated, with few limitations.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
In the early days of Individual Advocacy Group, our primary client was the State of Illinois. At that time and really throughout the years, the state has encountered funding issues. Naturally, that issue affected everyone who was providing services to those in need. We had many weeks the payroll was barely made. We had to rely heavily on my own credit and personal credit cards to make ends meet.
A bank eventually extended us a line of credit.
How did you get your first customer?
Initially, the state encountered a very difficult case, and they reached out to me and Individual Advocacy Group based on my background and experience. There was no doubt about the lengths I would go to support people with complex needs who need a chance. We continued to grow from there.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
Our marketing strategy was to provide the best quality supports for people with disabilities and everything was done through word of mouth. Eventually, through word of mouth, parents and the state referred individuals to us.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
I find, with anything I do, the hardest choice I make is when someone I believe in, is not a good fit for a position. Letting someone go is not an easy task for me. I believe in those I work with as much as I do the people we help. That makes letting people go or changing their positions very difficult for me.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I am a doer. My desire to help others connects me with those who have a similar passion. Together we create solutions for obstacles that are placed in our way or the way of those we serve. We have empathy for every person, even those with the most complex needs.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
The most satisfying moment for me is when you see the people you support thank you and appreciate you for helping to give them a better quality of life in the community.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
We will continue to provide support for people and we will always strive to do the best.
What business books have inspired you?
I’ve read several books on leadership while obtaining my doctorate that have inspired me over the years.
What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?
We purchased a building to create an arts program that people could attend to explore their interests.