Family ethic spurred Children's Home CEO
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When the Children's Home Society named him CEO, he was only 35, young for such an important title. But upbringing gave him an edge.
Dennis Sutton grew up in the old Triangle District, a diverse and colorful neighborhood where people looked out for each other and family was everything. His mother was Irene Fazio, sister of the restaurateur.
Shaped by Catholic schooling, the church, caring neighbors and that strong family ethic, Sutton saw a way to return those blessings through social work.
Inspired by the mantra that every child needs a home, he spent 27 years shoring up home society services. Numerous awards salute his successes -- expanded emergency shelters, no-fee adoptions and repeated national accreditation, for starters.
His retirement party coincides with the society's Founder's Day Celebration at 6:30 p.m. May 10 at St. George Orthodox Cathedral.
"We lived on Summers Street. It was part of the Triangle District, so it was a difficult neighborhood, but it was diverse and we did OK.
"My dad was an appliance service technician and later managed Hoylman-Huffman, a local appliance store. My mother was a Fazio, Joe's sister. She is the best cook in the Fazio family. That could cause some controversy, but it's true.
"Our home was owned by my grandfather, Dominic Fazio. My mother's and Dominic's homeplace was the original location of Fazio's on Bullitt Street. Uncle Joe is my godfather.
"We lived right off the corner of Summers and Christopher streets, between Frye's Alley where all the prostitutes were and what was Dryden Street. You can go across country and people will ask if Frye's Alley is still around.
"Eventually, urban renewal took all that. I played on the rail tracks where Capitol Market is now. The Orlando Hotel was across the street. It was a monthly rental place by then.
"The hotel had little businesses in it, a fish market, Arrow Rug. Leonoro's Spaghetti House was over on Broad Street, and a place called Boiarsky's Grocery. There was liquor after hours and you knew where to go for that.
"In 1957, all of downtown flooded. The water in front of our house was about a foot and a half deep and we played in it.
"My grandfather Fazio had a barber shop and carry-out and beer place, all in one building. He loved Charleston. He loved America. He never went to a doctor.
"He walked all over town. I would pass him as I walked to school. He always wore a suit and held up his trousers with suspenders. His white shirt was the most starched shirt I've ever seen.
"When I was growing up, folks took care of each other. If I was causing trouble, everyone knew about it, the prostitutes, the Polish, Italian and black communities. If I broke a window three blocks from home, my mother would know before I got home.
"I went to Sacred Heart Grade School, a very good thing for me. At a Catholic school, you could be disciplined by your parents or anybody's parents. That was perfectly acceptable. We've lost some of that now.
"I didn't have any idea what I wanted to be. I graduated from Charleston Catholic in 1968. No one in my family had gone to college. They believed in education and encouraged me.
"I went to Concord College, another good choice. My high school principal worked it out so I got enough financial aid to make it.
"I majored in psychology, then sociology, then philosophy. My last year, they started a degree in social work. I couldn't get the degree because it was the initial year, but I took social work courses.
"I did an internship with the Mercer County court and was assigned a few children, substituting for their junior probation officer. Those kids were not getting a good deal, and it didn't make any sense to me. They were in serious trouble, at risk of being sent to a correctional facility. They had difficulty with the school system, and I was able to work it out.
"Given my background and the breaks I got with a good school and two great extended families, it disturbed me that some kids were not so lucky.
"As part of my sociology course, we had visits with children incarcerated at the forestry camp at Leckie. I was stunned because it was my old neighborhood guys. I felt fortunate. I knew social work was something I wanted to do.
"I got a job as a program director with the Kanawha-Clay American Red Cross doing service to military families and disaster relief. I was there two years.
"WVU offered a master's-level social work program off campus. I went to school in the evenings. I got married in 1972 and got my master's in social work in 1975.
"I went to the Community Council of Kanawha Valley, at that time the United Way planning organization, and was there for 10 years. It was the greatest experience. I worked with the most passionate, compassionate folks around, leaders in our community.
"I was only 25, but I was well accepted. We did legislative work, public policy work and helped organizations with management, so I got to learn management skills. I was associate director, so I got to supervise folks.
"United Way was always concerned about understanding budgets, so I got to learn fundraising and marketing and all the skills I later put to use at the Children's Home Society.
"In 1985, at 35, I started here as CEO. I was much too young. I thank the people who hired me for taking that chance.
"I'm committed to the nonprofit community. My passions in life are helping children and nonprofit organizations.
"When I came here, we were operating at a deficit. We had a little over $1 million in net assets. Now we have a little over $7 million.
"We've moved from a basically local organization to having seven locations around the state. We were one of the first organizations in West Virginia accredited by the National Council on Accreditation for Services to Children and Families. We are one of the finest organizations in the country in terms of meeting national standards.
"When I came, the organization had just opened six emergency child shelters in rented buildings. Now we have 10 shelters and we've moved from those rented buildings into new facilities specifically for shelter care.
"The Davis Child Shelter on Greenbrier Street was in Blessed Sacrament Convent. We raised money locally and got the Davis Shelter built and put in new shelters in Ona and Holden and moved the shelter in Romney from a rented building into one we own. We did the same thing in Martinsburg and added a shelter in Parkersburg.
"This organization was founded in 1896 to find homes for children, and we are still doing that. All our services are geared toward permanency for children. We believe a lifelong family is essential for everyone. Every child should have a home to grow up in. It's the least we can do for our kids.
"We are on the cutting edge of adoption practice in this country. If you have a place in your home and your heart for a child and want to expand your family, we can help you whether you are interested in international adoption, special needs adoption, adopting children in foster care or adopting an infant.
"We are very focused on children nobody else wants. We eliminated fees as part of that. If you adopt a West Virginia child, we don't charge anything.
"We believe there is a home for every child. It really hurts when a child turns 18 in foster care and goes out in the world without a home. None of us quit being members of our family when we are 18. We try hard to find homes for children 14, 15, 16 and 17.
"I'm divorced now, but I was married to a wonderful woman for 32 years. My two children are the best. Matthew is vice president of Charles Ryan here and Benjamin is vice president of Summa Health Care Systems in Akron, Ohio.
"I'm retiring because it's a difficult job. I've done this for 27 years. The national average is about seven years. I've enjoyed staying here. I've always lived and worked within two miles of Summers Street.
"I still have a passion for nonprofits, children's services and child welfare. I'm 61. If I wanted to do something else, it's probably time to make that decision. This is the best time because the management team here is incredible. Most have been with the agency 15 to 25 years.
"If your passion is to help children, this is where you want to work. I was meant for this job. The path that took me here was the right path."Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.