One of the only reasons Stephen Brunero wanted to be the new executive director of the Rhode Island Parent Information Network (RIPIN) was its reputation for being a bridge between families and the services they need, a reputation Brunero vows to keep intact.
Brunero said he was all set to retire from his position with the Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) on Columbus Day of this year, when the opportunity to apply for RIPIN came up.
“I’ve always admired RIPIN’s mission, so I threw my hat in the ring,” said Brunero. “My retirement lasted one day.”
Prior to becoming RIPIN’s executive director, Brunero had over 36 years of experience in state and human service programs, serving as associate director of community service for the Rhode Island DHS and the administrator of all state and federal grant programs at the Office of Rehabilitation services.
Brunero is also a part-time real estate agent and an adjunct professor for Salve Regina University’s master program, teaching history, law, principles and ethics in Rehabilitation Counseling. He said he was prepared to focus on those two positions and leave human services behind.
But then he was offered the opportunity to lead RIPIN, and Brunero doesn’t regret his decision.
“This is the only organization I would have worked for,” he said. “Everyone here is so committed to bettering people’s lives.”
RIPIN focuses in the areas of health, education and early intervention, working to connect families and individuals with government and community partners to assist in those areas.
“I had worked with a lot of programs that help families and individuals with health-related concerns,” said Brunero.
Brunero sees RIPIN as a bridge between families and individuals who have children with special health care needs and the government and community agencies that can provide them with the tools and support they need.
RIPIN was formed in 1991 with a primary goal to teach individuals and families to become their own advocates for the things they need. Over the past 22 years, the organization has grown to help families connect with many things they need, such as finding new health care plans using HealthSource RI and ensuring the benefits they had under their old plans remain the same, through RIPIN’s newest program “RI REACH” (R.I. Insurance Resource Education & Assistance Consumer Helpline).
Other programs include Parent Consultant Services, Family Voices, Parent Training and Information Center, Family Resource Specialists, college planning and more. RIPIN will also partner with professionals in education and health care to support families further.
Linda McMullen, RIPIN’s director of administration, explained how the organization would help a family whose child has just been diagnosed with special needs.
“We would help the family to acquire health insurance, equipment such as a wheelchair, IEPs, specialized child care, things like that,” she said.
McMullen also explained that RIPIN follows a “peer to peer” model. Many, if not most, of RIPIN’s 105 employees have personal experience navigating these channels and working with these government agencies, so they know firsthand not only what these families are going through, but also what support they need.
“Not only are they trained, they have that personal experience,” said Brunero.
“If you haven’t walked the walk, how do you know what a family is going through,” said McMullen.
To help families learn the walk, RIPIN also offers a catalog of workshops, including Public Policy 101, Basic Rights in Special Education, Skills for Effective Parent Advocacy, Ready For Kindergarten, Basic Homework & Study Skills and many more.
One type of workshop Brunero and McMullen said is becoming increasingly important is transition workshops, which help prepare students with special needs to make the transition to the adult world of health care and the adult service system. They explained that it encourages those young adults to stand up for themselves, and helps parents find ways to let go and allow their children to become their own advocates.
“We help parents let go; it is a difficult transition,” said McMullen.
Even though RIPIN is dedicated to connecting individuals with any and all resources they need, no agency can do all of the advocacy necessary. Brunero says self-empowerment and self-advocacy are still important skills the organization attempts to pass on to families and individuals.
“We want them to be able to have the skills to advocate for themselves,” said McMullen, adding that many individuals who have gone through RIPIN’s programs end up becoming employees and parent counselors.
Both McMullen and Brunero believe that since children are being diagnosed with various conditions earlier in life, the demand for support for families from RIPIN will grow.
“As children are diagnosed, more parents will be able to make the right connections early,” said McMullen, adding that RIPIN should be seen as a trusted, one-stop center for any needs parents with students with special needs might have. “Whether we can provide the service directly or we can refer them somewhere else.”
“It’s really rewarding work,” said Brunero, adding that the organization serves over 40,000 people each year and recently won five awards, including one from Rhode Island KIDS COUNT.
RIPIN is funded through Rhode Island Department of Education, Department of Health, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and nearly 40 grants.