CEO reflects on career, mission of helping those with special needs

Dec. 17, 2018

By Brenda Wade Schmidt, for SiouxFalls.Business

At the end of the year, Anne Rieck McFarland will leave her job as the head of one of the 10 largest employers in Sioux Falls and say goodbye to her lifelong career advocating for people with disabilities so they can reach their full potential.

Her retirement as CEO from LifeScape will propel her into the new post-retirement work of helping other business leaders bring their best to their industries as well. Rieck McFarland plans to offer consulting services for emerging and seasoned leaders and boards of directors, along with giving back through community involvement.

“I’ve seen so much wonderful, positive things, and yet we have so much work to do,” she said of her life’s work. “The evolution of how children and adults with disabilities are treated is inspiring, yet there are still so many obstacles that need to be overcome.”

Rieck McFarland, who has been with the LifeScape organization for 32 years – before Children’s Care Hospital & School combined with South Dakota Achieve to form a new entity in 2014, leaves an organization that employs 1,200 – the majority in Sioux Falls, operates outreach programs across the state and manages a $65 million budget. She is being replaced by Steve Watkins, a Britton native who has more than 30 years of experience in executive and financial management. The two have been working together until she leaves Jan. 4.

LifeScape provides a range of services for children and adults who have disabilities and rehabilitation services to people of all abilities with specialized needs. The organizational structure includes a children’s specialty school, residential wings for 55 children and an 18-bed specialty hospital for people up to age 21 who have complex medical issues. Roughly 60 children from area school districts are bused to LifeScape’s 26th Street location each day for their education, and others who are living at the facility also attend classes. An additional 450 adults are supported in daytime and residential environments and are aided in finding employment.

LifeScape also has rehabilitation facilities in Rapid City and Sioux City. The organization will open an additional rehabilitation facility at 41st Street and Sertoma Avenue in March.

“We serve people of all ages and meet them where they are,” Rieck McFarland said. “Most have a disability; some don’t have a disability but maybe need physical therapy. Our rehab centers do fill a unique niche. We’re really specialized.”

Her interest in improving lives for others started while she was a student at Northern State University in Aberdeen, where she graduated in 1977. When she started college, she was interested in community service and early childhood development and saw herself one day owning a child care center. While in college, she worked at the Aberdeen Adjustment Training Center and once a week would take the nine residents to her family farm 10 miles out of town for a day trip.

“I was just having such a good time interacting with those guys. At that time, I had no idea that would end up being my calling,” she said. “While I felt that I was helping to make their lives better, I was learning so much from them.”

At the time she started her work, there were still a lot of people living in institutions in South Dakota, which has changed over the years as more people stayed living with their families or have moved into traditional living settings.

“Now, we have people living in the same neighborhoods where we live. We have come so far,” she said. “I have seen the change from them being segregated to now being included into the fabric of community life.”

Rieck McFarland’s most difficult and rewarding work was the 18 months that Children’s Care and Achieve joined to meld their organizations into one. Children’s Care had historically served young people until they reached adulthood, which Achieve had clients who were adults learning to work and live independently.

Leaders on the boards thought that together the two would be stronger.

“It had to be about meeting needs,” she said. Corporate egos and individual desires were shelved to work for that common goal of providing better services to children and adults.

“It was just an amazing opportunity to create a nurturing, positive culture,” she said. The organization chart is a wheel with no one job more important than the other. “The middle of the wheel is the people we serve.”

She anticipates LifeScape will continue to grow, and the organization already is looking at a new facilities plan with the opportunities to implement additional technologies that will enable people even more.

“The organization will go forward. There’s a reason the windshield is so much bigger then the rear-view mirror.”

Watkins will be a good fit, she said.

“I think he will bring a new layer of experience. It’s clear he has the heart and the mind-set. Some of his mind-set will really be an advantage to this organization.”

Watkins, 54, was hired by the board of directors to replace McFarland and brings experience working in industry. He was previously CEO of Orion Food Systems, had served as its CFO and serves on the boards of Children’s Home Society of South Dakota and Sanford Health Plan. He started Oct. 15 at LifeScape.

“One of the bigger considerations I gave to actually taking this job is, one, I got to interview Anne,” he said. “Two, was she had agreed to stay on and help through the transition.”

The two have talked about decision-making and priorities over coffee, have driven together across South Dakota to the Rapid City site and have spent countless hours going over the complexities of the nonprofit.

“The leadership style I have works really well with what Anne had,” he said. “She’s really stepped down. I’ve got the reins. But she’s there from a mentor standpoint.”

Together, the two also have gotten a lot of work done in a short time, Watkins said.

“It has been just a joy to work with her.”

Rieck McFarland, 62, will continue to be involved in the community and will move into the EmBe board chair position in January. She also will serve her second year as president of the council at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. In September, she was named to the 2018 South Dakota Hall of Fame.

As an advocate of boards, she hopes to do consulting, coaching and working with boards.

“I view the board as one of our greatest assets instead of a necessary evil. They are part of the wheel.”

Rieck McFarland, who dreams of riding her bicycle across the country in retirement, has worked 31 years in Sioux Falls and is married to retired lawyer Dennis McFarland. They have a daughter, Liz DeBerg, who is married with two sons and another child on the way.

Rieck McFarland will continue to be an advocate for all people, a life calling that started out strong and remains in her heart.

“If people had gotten to know those people like I did, maybe they would know … they’re really not that different,” she said.

Instead of coming on strong, she chose to educate others through the years, she said.

“I was more of a bulldozer in the early years. Then, you begin to recognize you need to walk along with people, find out what makes them uncomfortable,” she said. “All of a sudden, you’re not uncomfortable anymore.”

Instead, you become comfortable with all.

“I couldn’t be any luckier to find a profession or a job that suited me,” she said. “I started by chance. I stayed by choice.”

In her own words

If you had a chance, what would you tell your younger self?

Be present. Listen. Go to everything that your kids are involved in and don’t think work is more important than your family.

You obviously feel called to your career. If you had an opportunity to try some other line of work, what would it be?

Something in athletics. A college professor. Honestly, I almost don’t know. This is so core to me. And I have loved it. My dream was to walk out the door when I was still loving it, and I just do.

Who was your best mentor?

My grandmothers, several of my board members. Every staff member I meet is a mentor in some way. If I’m paying attention, I’m learning from them. When I stop and be present and listen, there’s no end to the mentors around me.

How did you decide it was time to retire?

I have had this plan for a long time that this would be kind of my ideal. … This will give me five years with this (merged) organization. The organization had to be in the right place in terms of its standing with the community. … I wanted to be sure I would be leaving the organization as good as it could be, and it has just worked out that way.

What is one thing unexpected that you want to do in retirement?

Clean my closets, my house – things I would have never had said I would look forward to. My 93-year-old mother is here in town. I’m looking forward to being a more regular part of her life. I see her once or twice a week, but I’d like to see her more.

CEO reflects on career, mission of helping those with special needs

“My dream was to walk out the door when I was still loving it, and I just do.” She leads one of Sioux Falls’ largest employers and is retiring soon. We look back and ahead with the CEO of LifeScape.

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