Dr. Charlene Bennett: A Trailblazing CEO Transforming Lives with Unconventional Leadership

Dr. Charlene Bennett: A Trailblazing CEO Transforming Lives
Photo Courtesy: Nadine Crespo

In the world of advocacy and leadership, some individuals stand out not just for their accomplishments but for their unwavering commitment to change.  For over four decades, Dr. Charlene Bennett has been an advocate and visionary leader in the field of disability rights and services. Her journey, marked by a relentless pursuit of inclusion and innovation, has transformed countless lives and challenged societal norms, systems and policy.  As the CEO and Co-Founder of Individual Advocacy Group (IAG), Dr. Bennett’s dynamic leadership style has left an indelible mark on the landscape of disability support services.

From a young age, Dr. Bennett demonstrated a profound empathy and a keen desire to support people that have intellectual/developmental disabilities and co-occurring complex needs. She was deeply influenced in her early career by her experiences as a teacher and research associate, where she witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by individuals with severe developmental, emotional, and physical disabilities.  Then, she felt a deep desire to make a difference in the lives of those looked over by society for being too difficult or differently abled. 

From her role as Principal at LaPaz School to Director of Early Childhood Programs, she demonstrated a deep understanding of the unique needs of persons with disabilities. During these formative years, Dr. Bennett honed her skills in program development, staff management, and therapeutic interventions, laying the groundwork for her future endeavors. 

Furthermore, during her tenure as Assistant Bureau Chief/State Field Manager at the Illinois Department of Public Health, she played a pivotal role in developing and implementing state regulations and eligibility criteria for Medicaid programs catering to children and adults with developmental disabilities, chronic mental illness, and emotional and behavioral needs. Her responsibilities included crafting quality assurance programs for Intermediate Care Facilities for the Intellectually Disabled (ICF/ID) and ICFs for individuals with severe mental illness, as well as overseeing reimbursement systems.

It was in this role that she knew she wanted to make changes on a much bigger scale due to the mistreatment and neglect she saw going on.  Not content with the status quo, she embarked on a mission to challenge conventional wisdom and create pathways to inclusion and empowerment.

Founded in 1995, IAG quickly emerged as a leader in disability care.  As the driving force, Dr Bennett revolutionized support services for persons with disabilities, from having to be locked away in institutional settings to being able to live freely in communities. She focused on community integration, small settings, ensuring everyone has a bedroom and no more than 3-4 people in a house.  She grew IAG from a small agency in Kankakee, Illinois, to a nationwide organization offering a range of creative programs and services tailored to the unique needs of individuals with disabilities. 

Under her leadership, IAG has developed over 120 customized community living arrangements and eight creative day programs geared around art, music, dance, woodworking, and self-entrepreneurship that cater to diverse needs across Illinois and Washington DC.  She has also initiated the transformative Transitional Living Programs (TLP) in collaboration with the Department of Children and Family Services, which serves young adults 18-21. This innovative wrap-around program equips youth with essential life skills through supported living arrangements, employment services, and personalized transition plans as they move into adulthood. Other services include a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Program, a vent program, employment services, a community without walls and a Behavioral Health Clinic specializing in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (ID/DD). 

One of the defining moments of her tenure came when she spearheaded a landmark lawsuit against the City of Springfield, Illinois, in collaboration with the United States Department of Justice. The lawsuit, aimed at combating fair housing discrimination against people with disabilities, resulted in an unprecedented landmark victory in the 7th Court of Appeals. As a result, zoning ordinances were overhauled to ensure equal application for all residents, regardless of disability status.

While IAG has grown immensely, the quality of care and services has not diminished.  Dr. Bennett has created a person-centered plan structure that can be used as a model for other agencies. Unlike other plans, these plans share the person’s life story and pertinent information to best support them.  She believes that the heart opens when you show people the human side.  The people that IAG supports are more than their challenges, and she has always diligently ensured that whoever walks through the doors of IAG understands that. With her guidance, IAG has gained national accreditation through CARF, ensuring the highest standards of care and service while consistently maintaining high national accreditation scores from the Bureau of Quality Management.  IAG’s offerings reflect her unwavering commitment to holistic care and empowerment.

Dr. Bennett’s influence also transcends organizational boundaries. As a CEO, it is important to her that the employees also feel valued and supported.  Her heart led her to create a grant for employees in need. She sent out applications in the mail to all employees and set up a system so that people didn’t have to disclose who they were and could anonymously petition to be considered for a grant. She knows how hard it can be juggling multiple things simultaneously and wanted to be able to offer assistance if it can help someone pay a bill, go to school, cover childcare expenses, etc.

This is yet another testament to her commitment to those in IAG’s support and those who are the lifeline- the employees.  It is imperative to her that the employees are connected to the mission and values that represent the organization and that they offer ongoing training. It is equally important to her that they enjoy their work and feel valued.  Unlike conventional organizations that put people in roles, she tends to create roles for people based on their strengths instead of a premade description that may not allow them to shine.  In doing this, she has been able to cultivate a grow-from-within culture that allows mentorship and camaraderie among the different regions.

Her audacious mission will soon find a global platform as IAG is slated to be featured on an upcoming episode of “View Point with Dennis Quaid”. This international recognition serves to proliferate Dr. Bennett’s advocacy for disability rights and IAG’s commitment to social transformation, spreading their message far and wide.

As Dr. Charlene Bennett continues to lead the charge for inclusivity and empowerment, her legacy is a sign of hope for individuals with disabilities and marginalized communities worldwide. Through her dynamic leadership and unwavering determination, she has shattered barriers, challenged societal norms, transformed systems, and paved the way for a more equitable future. Reflecting on her remarkable journey, one thing remains clear: Dr. Bennett’s impact will be felt for generations.

Stay up-to-date by following @iagcares on social media and visit www.iagcares.org, and take a step towards supporting an inclusive society.


Published By: Aize Perez


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