After 25 years of passionate and dedicated service as the CEO of Services for the UnderServed (S:US), Donna Colonna recently announced her plan to retire in February 2022. Donna has spent her nearly 50-year career working to promote self-determination for people who have been disadvantaged by the circumstances of their lives.
As she has often said, she is most grateful for her first full-time job because of the influence it had on her life and the way it shaped her attitude, beliefs, and values. It was a life-defining experience for her to live with 15 individuals with developmental disabilities, who had spent most of their childhood and adulthood in the Willowbrook State School. It was there that she learned about human resilience, human capacity, and limitless hope in the face of adversity. And it is this experience that impacted the trajectory of her career as she set off to join in the civil rights movement for people with disabilities. The lessons she gained from this early experience propelled her to want to ‘pay it forward’ and influenced the way she would approach her life’s work.
When Donna joined S:US in 1997, the organization was almost 20 years old, had a budget of $27 million, and served 1,500 individuals primarily in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. Now, under her leadership, S:US is a leading and respected $257 million health and human services organization serving 37,000 individuals and families each year, in all five boroughs of our city and on Long Island. As the organization grew, it became an important part of the fabric of the communities where it provides services. Donna has spent her working years as a vocal advocate for the rights of, and services for individuals and families with developmental disabilities, people with behavioral health challenges, and people impacted by poverty. Her life’s work has been dedicated to breaking down the stigma of disability and homelessness, building community, and helping to right societal imbalances.
S:US’ growth and impact were achieved by the organization finding holistic ways to create opportunity, promote inclusion and break down stigma. It always had as its guiding light, the belief that everyone, despite the circumstances of their life, deserved the opportunity to shape their destiny. To this end, S:US has partnered with the people it serves in supporting them to write the narrative of their own lives.
S:US has worked with the public and private sectors in partnership for the public good. Its service philosophy has been built on the belief that safe, affordable housing provides the foundation on which a healthy and productive life can be built. S:US’ housing portfolio (180 buildings and over 1,000 scattered site apartments), day programs, clinics and treatment centers, shelters, homeless eviction prevention, and care coordination services span over 60 neighborhoods, providing 4,500 New Yorkers a place to lay their head each night. S:US also has over 200 housing units under construction and an additional 2000+ units in its development pipeline.
Donna’s visionary leadership gave birth to S:US Urban Farms, an innovative complement to S:US’ housing offerings. This initiative serves as a vehicle for employment of S:US residents, a tool for wellness, and as a space for learning and personal development. Operating across 4 boroughs with approximately 15,700 square feet of growing space, S:US Urban Farms is among the largest therapeutic horticulture and urban agriculture projects in NYC.
Donna’s belief in the notion that we all share common humanity recognized that people with disabilities, people in poverty, and people with challenging life experiences, just like anyone else, want purpose, meaning, participation, relationships, and belonging. It has been her life’s work to help us all open our minds to the possibility of the gifts, strengths, and contributions of people for whom opportunity was not always available.
Throughout her tenure, S:US has been at the cutting edge of promoting and implementing innovative approaches that create pathways to independence for marginalized individuals. Over the years, Donna served in industry leadership positions in statewide and NYC trade associations and on numerous government committees that have shaped policy and program implementation on behalf of people disadvantaged by poverty or disability. She has used her position and has been generous with her knowledge to the benefit of the entire human services field. Her optimism and tenacity in always pushing forward have served the field well.
S:US has been a catalyst for social change and has helped make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals and their families by partnering with them to create a personally transformative path lined with activities and relationships they value and which bring them joy. Respecting the value that lived experience brings to a situation, S:US has leaned on peers to bring hope, practical support, and empathy to the lives of the people served as they make their way towards their goals.
Donna leaves S:US and her life legacy in the capable hands of Jorge R. Petit, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist with over 25 years of public healthcare experience. For the last four years, he has served as the CEO and President of Coordinated Behavioral Care (CBC), a healthcare organization dedicated to improving the quality of care for Medicaid beneficiaries with serious mental illness, chronic health conditions, and/or substance use disorders. Jorge enthusiastically faces the challenge of leading S:US and taking it to even greater heights. The organization is poised for a strong and healthy future and Donna has expressed her confidence that S:US will remain a force for good.
Perhaps Donna’s service to the human services community is best reflected in the words of George Bernard Shaw, “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.” As Donna closes out her career, we thank her for helping to make a little corner of the world a better place.
About Services for the UnderServed (S:US)
Services for the UnderServed (S:US) drives scalable solutions to transform the lives of people with disabilities, people in poverty and people facing homelessness: solutions that contribute to righting societal imbalances. Founded in 1978, S:US works with over 37,000 individuals and their families every year to create pathways to rich and productive lives by offering housing, employment, skills-building, treatment, and rehabilitation services. Learn more at sus.org.