Laser-focused on People

Leader at Lifetime Assistance wins praise for vision, work ethic

Jamie Branciforte

Perhaps it was his upbringing or his schooling, or it may have been his bewilderment at the age of 18 at having to accompany patients to electroshock therapy, but something early in James Branciforte’s career stirred in him a desire to help others. 

“The first job I had in (human services) was as a front line worker, a direct care worker, at Buffalo Psychiatric Center,” says Branciforte, president and CEO of Lifetime Assistance Inc. “It was at a time—it was the mid-70s—when people were still warehoused in institutions.” Branciforte, known to most as Jamie, was tasked with distributing medication, bathing and feeding residents and seeing to it that those with severe depression and schizophrenia were transported to shock therapy. It was a real eye opener, he says, reminiscent of scenes from the Jack Nicholson movie, “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“There was this big day room, kind of like the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest.’ We all had these big jailer keys,” Branciforte says of his experience at the center. “I remember thinking early on, how in the world is this helpful to anybody? If I were severely depressed or disoriented and not knowing where I am, there’s nothing helpful about this.”

Branciforte stayed at the center for a couple of years before heading back to school. He was living in Batavia when he got a call from his former boss at the Buffalo Psych Center asking him to take on the role of care manager for Genesee County during the state-run center’s de-institutionalizing. Branciforte served as the county’s care manager for some time before heading to graduate school in Albany, a move that would lead him away from the mental health side of the human services industry and to a job in what is now the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, or OPWDD. Branciforte also did a two-year stint with Buffalo’s People Inc., before eventually making the move to Lifetime Assistance.

“I found that if I really wanted to have an impact, more than the day-to-day handling of personal circumstances, I really needed to get into management, I really needed to be in a decision-making role,” Branciforte says. “So that was kind of what launched my interest in my career.”

Now he oversees a human services nonprofit that employs 1,500 people across more than 60 facilities in the Rochester area, all working to serve at the highest level individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Lifetime Assistance, based on Paul Road in Chili, offers a full spectrum of services to empower people with developmental disabilities. Its mission is to foster independence, dignity and respect for those individuals.

When Branciforte took the reins at Lifetime Assistance at the age of 31, the agency was still a fledgling nonprofit. With just a decade under its belt, the organization had roughly seven or eight residences and a couple of day programs and annually posted about $7 million in revenues.

“One of the fi rst things we did when I came in, so we were all on the same page with the board, is we sat down and did an extensive strategic plan and envisioning who we are. We probably spent a year and a half to two years really defining our direction, our mission, our vision,” Branciforte recalls. “Who do we want to be when we grow up?”

The agency now has an annual budget of $75 million and serves some 1,800 individuals.

“And it hasn’t been growth for growth’s sake, just to get big,” Branciforte says. “It’s been growth in response to demand.”

Charting a course

Lifetime Assistance was founded in 1978 by a group of seven parents of children with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Frustrated by the lack of services for children and their families on Monroe County’s west side, the parents founded the organization with its fi rst day habilitation center in Brockport.

At the time, a large gap existed in services for individuals with disabilities beyond high school. It was their intent to found an agency that could bridge that gap.

But the agency had to be about more than just filling that gap. Lifetime Assistance was to be a giant step away from the clinical and institutional nature of services for those with disabilities that was characteristic in the 1970s and earlier. It was founded by people whose children had grown up with developmental or intellectual disabilities, so compassion and understanding had to be at the core of everything Lifetime Assistance did.

“Because we were started by families and we remain true to those roots, half of our board is family members of people we serve,” Branciforte says. “And very determined is our mission to always be there for families, hence the name, Lifetime Assistance.”

In fact, co-founder Donna Lowry remains on the organization’s board some 40 years later. That longevity is one of the things that make the agency so successful, Branciforte says. “I think the remarkable leadership, the tenure of the leadership, both in senior management and at the board level,” makes Lifetime Assistance successful, Branciforte explains. “We have many board members that have served for decades and are committed and dedicated beyond just being a community volunteer. They get it. Their heart is into the work.”

Since its humble beginnings, Lifetime Assistance has grown tremendously. The organization has waitlists for all of its services, which are available in Monroe County and parts of Genesee and Orleans counties, Branciforte says.

Agency services include residential facilities and support, including a live-in caregiver service called Perfect Fit; day services that include supports for seniors and a college certificate program; community services that include fiscal intermediaries and respite services; vocational services that includes LAICO Industries & Services, the vocational training and employment services division of Lifetime Assistance, as well as a highly successful integrated venture called Classified Shredding & Scanning; and recreational services that are designed to give families a break from their caregiving responsibilities through activities such as basketball games or ice cream socials.

As the largest developmental disability services provider in the region, Lifetime Assistance’s goal is to continue to provide quality, fulfilling lives, meaningful lives and dignified lives for the individuals and families it serves, Branciforte says. “It’s been a winning formula to be laser-focused on people in need and to be a responsible partner with New York State, which really drives the agenda relative to community services development,” Branciforte says.

The vast majority of Lifetime Assistance’s services are paid for through Medicaid’s fee-for-service system. That will change in the next couple of years to a managed care system, in which each individual will get a certain amount of spending per year for services.

“So instead of every day this person comes in you get paid, you (will) get so much a year—make it work,” Branciforte explains succinctly.

Branciforte serves as chairman of Person Centered Services of Western New York, one of two managed care organizations that cover the Rochester area. Person Centered Services includes more than 30 member organizations that provide services covered by Medicaid to 18,000 people in care coordination.

The managed care system is slated to go live in 2020 and be mandatory by 2022, Branciforte notes, adding that the system is expected to save money for the state while also providing more person-centered care for individuals covered by it.

Successes and challenges

Lou Katz, former executive vice president of Lifetime Assistance, recalls the atmosphere at the organization as mission-oriented. 

Employees “knew we were providing valuable services to people with developmental disabilities, and I think everyone felt like they were following a worthwhile career path,” says Katz, who worked at Lifetime Assistance some 35 years.

Like Branciforte, Katz says the organization’s success is a result of great leadership among the staff, but that leadership starts in the CEO’s office.

Lifetime Assistance’s “mission has always been if there were people with disabilities who needed services (the agency was) going to make sure they got them,” Katz says. “The mission has stayed consistent, to provide services that are needed.”

Board member Christine McKinley, whose son, Sean Donohue, has received residential services from Lifetime Assistance since he was nine, also points to Branciforte as a catalyst for the organization’s success.

“He’s a huge supporter, so what that does is it really demonstrates to other people how they should conduct themselves. And they’re all just great people,” McKinley says. “They treat these people like they’re their own family.”

McKinley says there is a high level of commitment from Lifetime Assistance’s staffers, as well as dedication and collaboration.

For 32-year veteran Amy Mitchell, it’s also the dedication of those longtime board members and staffers who understand and value what Lifetime Assistance does that makes the organization special. “In today’s environment it can be challenging because the wages aren’t always what they should be and what the staff deserves, but our board understands that, as does our senior leadership,” says Mitchell, who serves as director of day services. “I look around and we’re a bit unique in that area, but I think we’re very fortunate in having the shared vision between our board and the longevity of our senior staff.”

Branciforte also points to a wage problem in the human services industry, which has led to a worker shortage.

“The biggest challenge of taking on new services is a very severe shortage of frontline workers,” he says. “It’s extremely difficult to find and retain quality direct support professionals.” Human services nonprofits are competing with retailers and restaurants for entry-level workers, Branciforte says. It’s much easier to say, “You want fries with that?” than it is to bathe and feed someone with developmental disabilities, although it may not be as rewarding.

“I think it’s a choice we, as a society, really need to be honest about. Do we value the profession of caregiving? And it’s not just for us and people with developmental disabilities, but it’s for those (baby) boomers, who not too long from now will need caregivers,” he says. “And if we decide that we do and provide a wage that allows people to make a decent living, I think the future is bright. If we don’t make that choice as a society, I think we have some real challenges on our hands.”

Lifetime Assistance has tried to combat that through a competitive benefits package with affordable health care and training, employee development and career development.

“We want people to succeed,” Branciforte says. “Kind of rolling out the red carpet, so when you come here you’re welcomed in as part of the family.” Branciforte’s management style is described by colleagues as strong but compassionate.

“He’s grateful for the difference that the staff makes in the individuals’ lives,” Mitchell says. “If people are going through a hard time, Jamie’s always right there. He’s forward thinking and not afraid to take on challenges. And what a great role model. He leads by example.” Adds McKinley: “He has great ideas and he has a great vision. He tries tirelessly to make this organization the best it can be with limited resources. He’s brought this organization a long way with limited resources, and I think with his vision and his dedication and commitment to the agency he’s just done a fabulous job.”

Branciforte’s mother, who worked in the human services industry with abused children, influenced him immensely, he says.

“She had a lot of idioms, but one of her quotes was always take the high road,” Branciforte recalls. “And there’s a lot to that. Out of respect, I live that advice every day to honor her. And that really ripples through a lot of my decision-making.”

Branciforte also is fond of writer and poet Maya Angelou, whom he met when Lifetime Assistance honored her some time ago. His favorite line of her poetry adorns the door to the agency’s conference room.

“One of my favorite quotes is from the poem, the Human Family. It has to do with the interconnectedness of all of us, the beauty of diversity,” he says. “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

What he’s learned along the way is to keep your chin up and try hard not to sweat the small stuff. “Easier said than done, but it’s true. Most of our stressors that we perceive as catastrophic are not,” Branciforte says. “Save your energy and your worry and the most demanding of yourself for the big stuff. Because it will come.”

At home

Born and raised in Pembroke, 61-year-old Branciforte now lives in Le Roy with his wife of 39 years, Theresa. The high school sweethearts have two daughters and a son: Shanna, Michelle and Brandon.

Branciforte speaks fondly of the day the family celebrated the adoption of his granddaughter, Lydia, who at 19 has a severe developmental disability. The two enjoy fishing and bowling together, as well as going to minor league baseball games together. Lydia has given him a personal connection to the organization he leads.

A jack-of-all-trades, or at least someone who has dabbled in many, Branciforte has played mandolin in a backyard bluegrass band; worked as a cook’s assistant at a steak house; earned his commercial driver’s license, which he maintains; became a state certified sheep shearer to help on a friend’s farm; and worked alongside Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, R-Batavia, who was his foreman at an industrial pig and chicken farm. The two remain friends.

But most important to Branciforte, among his many accomplishments, are the four decades he has spent with his wife—“we’re the best of friends,” he says—and the three decades he has had at Lifetime Assistance.

“We brighten people’s lives, and we’re changing the world in some sense. And I don’t say that lightly,” he says of his work with the organization. “There really is an impact on individuals, on families, on our community. And being able to see that and be part of that is the most successful thing and very rewarding and meaningful.”

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