By JEFF MEYERS
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Andrew Pulrang and Robert Poulin have worked side by side over the last 12½ years as community advocates for people with disabilities.
Pulrang, executive director for the North Country Center for Independence, is heading into retirement and will hand over the reins to Poulin on Thursday.
“We’ve been doing things to prepare for this for about a month,” said Pulrang, noting that the center’s Board of Directors chose Poulin in late September to fill the position. “We had a number of excellent applicants, but their ultimate decision was to go with Robert.
“I think it was a great decision.”
Poulin, as the center’s systems advocate for the past decade, did everything he could to ensure that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was understood and followed across the community.
A staunch believer in the political process, he constantly followed legislative action in Albany and Washington, D.C., that would impact people with disabilities.
He now accepts his new position with that same fervor but acknowledges Pulrang’s role as his mentor and boss.
“We have talked in depth about the center and independent living, about disability-rights issues,” Poulin said. “I credit him in helping me get to this point in my career.
“I am confident as we go forward that he had left us with a strong foundation to continue on.”
The center has already hired a new systems advocate to replace Poulin and will introduce the new employee to the community in the next few weeks. In fact, the center has hired three new staff members at this time of transition.
Meanwhile, Poulin will continue to promote assistance for the individual while emphasizing the need to focus on the big picture and independent living’s role in the community.
“It’s a huge job,” he said. “The work Andrew did here is amazing. He has meant so much to so many people. He is going to be missed.”
The change in leadership, Pulrang said, “doesn’t change the mission, the values that we both share and have drawn from other centers across the state and the country. The center will still continue to provide support and advice.”
Poulin grew up in Florida as a visually impaired youngster but had never heard of the concept of independent living as an advocacy issue.
“My mom taught me to be independent but to accept my limitations,” he said. “She said I would never drive a car, but I could become president of the United States.”
As a young adult, Poulin moved to Plattsburgh to begin college at Plattsburgh State, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in education.
He returned to Florida after graduation, where he did teach for a while. But, he missed Plattsburgh and moved back to take a position at the Center for Independence as a youth educator.
“I originally told Andrew that I’d give the position two years, but my ultimate goal was to teach,” he recalled.
The systems-advocacy position opened a year and a half later, and Poulin decided to give that a shot. Within a short time, he realized that he had found his career goal.
“I loved it,” he said. “I stopped looking for teaching jobs and have never looked back.”
Pulrang, who was born in Plattsburgh but moved to Olympia, Wash., as a youngster, took a summer job at the center in 1990, one year after it had opened. He had always been fond of the North Country and decided to move back here after completing graduate school at Dartmouth University.
“Although I had disabilities all my life, I had never thought of working in the field,” he said. “I majored in history but had no idea what I wanted to do as a career.”
But in 1989, Pulrang became interested in an issue at Galludette University in Washington, D.C., a school for the deaf where the students had become actively involved in advocating for a deaf person to become president of the college.
“The year I graduated, they did hire a deaf person as president, and that was a big deal for me, that a group of people were so dedicated to what they believe.”
Pulrang has seen a lot of positive movement in independent living, particularly with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but he sees a lot of unfinished business, particularly in the area of public access.
He expects to remain in the area but is not sure what he might focus his energies on next.
“Part of what pushed me to make this move was thinking about the people we serve,” he said. “Sometimes they have no choice but to change directions in their lives. I have learned from them.”
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