CONTRIBUTED BY ADRS
Sometimes people find their calling when they least expect it. This was the case for Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services Assistant Commissioner Curtis Glisson.
Glisson, who retired from ADRS Jan. 1 after 25 years, experienced chance meetings that eventually launched a career that produced programs and approaches that changed the lives of thousands of Alabamians with disabilities including an expansion of the Business Relations Program leading to millions in sales each year.
During Glisson’s Dec. 17 retirement ceremony, ADRS Commissioner Jane Elizabeth Burdeshaw said his absence will be equally hard for his coworkers and consumers.
“Your passionate and devoted leadership made you a strong advocate,” she said. “The contributions you made to your work as a member of (the Executive Leadership Team), your staff, the consumers and the department will never be forgotten. On behalf of the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, and for the thousands of Alabamians with disabilities who you have helped reach their maximum potential, thank you for the incredible legacy of compassionate leadership.”
Like many college graduates, Glisson was searching for his true calling. His first indication that a career in vocational rehabilitation might be a good fit came through a simple dance lesson. The mother of his girlfriend at the time was teaching lessons to residents at MARC with cognitive disabilities and asked Glisson if he’d be willing to help. Though he was nervous at first, he said the experience was extremely rewarding.
“By the time I finished doing that, I thought, ‘these people are having a blast,’” he said. “I’d never seen anyone appreciate what we were doing for them more than them.”
The second inspiration came while Glisson was tending bar. A representative of United Cerebral Palsy was chatting with the staff and happened to mention they were hoping to fill a vacancy in a new program called “supported employment.” Glisson, who had a master’s degree in counseling, was recommended by his coworkers and was offered the position; he accepted.
This chance meeting set the wheels in motion for what soon became an incredible career.
After establishing himself with UCP, Glisson was recruited by the Mobile Association for the Blind to create a supported-employment program. He eventually became the program coordinator and was instrumental in adding a deaf services program.
His experience in both the blind and deaf world made him uniquely qualified to assist ADRS rebuild relationships with community-based rehabilitation programs (CRPs). Glisson and Denise Reid split the state and accomplished their goals.
While on this mission, Glisson remained involved with the blind and deaf community and was recruited by Rita Houston to the VRS office in Montgomery. He continued to offer input and ideas, and eventually rose to the title of assistant commissioner.
The list of successes is substantial for Glisson, whose efforts showed his strong commitment to the programs and their consumers.
For example, working with E.H. Gentry to create Camp SAVI (Seniors Adapting to Visual Impairment) was a game changer. During the camps, seniors learn how to adapt to vision loss, and Glisson said it was always rewarding to see those who attended “turn the corner.”
“The ones who came, left saying, ‘This changed my life,’” he said. “It was great.”
A large part of a successful career is the ability to adapt to tough circumstances, and Glisson has been solid as a rock in this capacity. He is known as a great problem solver, which served him well during the implementation of WIOWA and COVID-19 protocols.
Adaptability also served him well when the Business Enterprise Program was placed under his direction. Glisson said he did not have a great deal of experience with the program at first, but he had always been interested in its operations because it served the blind and low-vision community. Additionally, Glisson had worked in food service for many years before entering the world of rehab and could offer a unique perspective to BEP’s operations, especially because ADRS’s participating vendors are geared mostly toward food service and vending.
Because of his unique experiences and successful initiatives in so many areas, it is no surprise that the National Council of the Blind eventually asked him to be on the board and serve as its chairperson. Part of his duties included hosting conference calls with BEP directors from across the nation, which gave him an appreciation for how impactful Alabama’s program has become.
“There are states that have four or five vendors, and we have 80,” he said. “There are states that don’t have military dining and we’ve got it all. Every time a soldier in this state eats dinner on the base, that’s on us. All the vending at rest areas around the state, that’s all us.”
Throughout his tenure, Glisson has been known to share credit and avoid the spotlight, which led to unique ways of recognizing employees. He always enjoyed bucking the trend of traditional awards to offer personalized accolades to people for things that made them uniquely effective at their job. An example is the “Jiminy Cricket Award” set aside for someone who built a great work alliance to help a consumer move forward.
“I’ve always believed people need to be reminded of how important the work is that they do,” he said.
Recognizing the great work of his fellow ADRS employees has been one of his favorite things about the department, and it will be a tough adjustment to leave those daily interactions behind because the ADRS staff has become like a second family.
“There’s something about this profession that attracts great people; people who have a heart for service to others,” he said. “That same attitude comes out in service to each other as well. I think that’s why we get so close, which makes it harder to leave and harder to say goodbye. I’ll miss the feeling of making a difference and I’ll miss the people.”
COVID-19 caused a few adjustments to Glisson’s retirement, but he said he was able to visit VRS offices across the state and interact with staff members once more. He said it gave him a chance to reflect on how fortunate he was to have connected with ADRS.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” he said. “I’m so lucky to have found it because it has been so rewarding. People go out and volunteer for things to feel like they make a difference in the world, but if you work here and really understand what’s going on you realize you’re making a difference.”