NORMAL — The CEO of a McLean County agency focused on keeping families together by keeping family members with disabilities close by is retiring to spend more time with her own family.
Laura Furlong is stepping down after 25 years with Marcfirst, including the past six years as CEO. Her retirement takes effect June 28.
"It was a very difficult decision, but I hope to remain connected to people with disabilities and to continue to advocate on their behalf," Furlong told The Pantagraph on Friday.
"Laura is a passionate person when it comes to working and administering to people with special needs in this community," said Sam Lewis, chairman of the Marcfirst board of directors. "She has made a difference."
"We're sad to see her go but I understand why and wish her well." he said.
Marcfirst works to keep families together by providing services to people with disabilities so they can remain in their home communities, Furlong said.
Services of Marcfirst, 1606 Hunt Drive, Normal, include the SPICE (Services for Parent Infant and Child Education) program, which provides therapy for children with developmental disabilities or delays through age 14; the high school transition program, which creates a bridge between school life and adult services; the Supported Employment Program, which creates opportunities for people with disabilities to be employed; and the Residential and Day Programs, which provide supportive housing and skills training to help people with disabilities to gain independence.
Marcfirst, which serves about 800 children and adults each year, has 150 full- and part-time employees and a budget of $6 million, Furlong said.
"The highlights for me are when we listen to families and support their needs," Furlong said. An example led to the creation of the high school transition program.
Asked about a frustration, Furlong said "Operating in the state of Illinois is fraught with uncertainty and limited focus on people with disabilities for the past 12 to 15 years." Illinois is ranked 47th of the 50 states in its funding and support for people with disabilities, she said.
Even so, 60 percent of Marcfirst clients who want to work are employed, compared with a 10 percent employment rate for people with developmental or intellectual disabilities nationwide, she said.
"It's very important that people are engaged in their community and we are a big part of that," she said. "My job has been very rewarding."
But Furlong, who turns 55 on Jan. 6, said it's time to focus more on her family, including her parents who relocated to Bloomington-Normal several years ago to be close to her.
Lewis said the Marcfirst board of directors will organize a search committee and he hopes the board can select a new CEO before Furlong retires to allow for a meaningful transition.