Ken Bates has always enjoyed working to help those who need an extra hand or might have especially tough challenges to overcome each day. That often means a job of never-ending challenges – not that Bates necessarily minds.
"I've always loved working in supporting communities to be stronger and better equipped to support people who have complex challenges and complex needs and are oftentimes left behind," said Bates, the president and CEO of the human services nonprofit Open Sky Community Services and its predecessor organization, The Bridge of Central Massachusetts.
Open Sky, with roughly 100 programs across Central Massachusetts, certainly has kept Bates' hands full. Formed in July after an $82-million merger between The Bridge and Alternatives Unlimited in Whitinsville, the nonprofit essentially doubled in the size of its workforce.
"That was a huge endeavor, and he drove that right from the beginning," said Donald Doyle, president and CEO of the banking institution Webster Five and an Open Sky board member for the past decade.
Doyle attributed the successful merger to Bates's leadership and management abilities, as well as his communication skills in pressing for what Bates saw as a necessary move.
"He's very passionate about what he does," Doyle said. "Ken's a native of Worcester, grew up in Worcester, went to school in Worcester and still lives in Worcester, so the role of community is very important to him."
Beyond the Alternatives merger, Bates has pushed for further collaboration between Central Massachusetts social service agencies, including forming the Central Community Health Partnership with AdCare Hospital, LUK, Inc., and Venture Community Services to develop a statewide system to help those in need.
Bates has worked with Worcester behavioral health and education agency YOU Inc., too, to help fulfill both agencies' missions, said Kristine Bostek, YOU president and CEO. She lauded his charisma, collaborative abilities and deep knowledge about the health and human services landscape.
"He's very humble, and he sees that we'll all be better off as leaders in our agencies if we come together and tackle some really challenging things," she said.
The new Open Sky
Bates said the merger was needed because the modern human service industry requires greater scale and diversity today. The deal was first considered four years ago and took more than a year to put together.
"We've become Open Sky Community Services to do something more, to be part of something bigger and to make a difference for people we serve and the communities in which we all live," he said.
Open Sky helps those with mental health or substance abuse challenges, among other needs, putting it at the forefront of the opioid epidemic and behavioral health needs when funding for such services often falls short.
Open Sky helps not only those struggling with addiction themselves but family members, who are often children.
"These kids in school who are traumatized by the epidemic is significant, and the impact there is rampant," Bates said.
As for mental health, new Centers for Disease Control statistics show suicide rates to be on the rise. Another ongoing challenge is helping LGBTQ youth, who have especially high rates of suicide. Open Sky helps with homelessness, trauma response, intellectual disabilities and an array of challenges.
"What's great about our organization," Bates said, "is that we hire people who work and live in their communities, and it's really about hiring people for our mission. People come here for the mission, not the money."
A dedicated life
Bates has spent his whole career in human services, and all of it has been close to home. Bates began working as a clinician for a 24/7 mobile crisis team for mental health and substance abuse cases, often in police stations and emergency rooms.
Before joining The Bridge, Bates held leadership roles with Advocates, Spectrum Health Systems and UMass Medical School.
"I always knew I loved helping people, and loved supporting the underdog and helping people who were left out or left behind," he said.