Delaine Petersen

Delaine Petersen

Executive Director [retired]
The Arc of East Central Iowa

Delaine Petersen, retired executive director of The Arc of East Central Iowa, has had two primary influencers in her life: her children, Leslie and Matthew.

Born with profound disabilities, the children introduced Ms. Petersen and her husband Pete to a life they otherwise would have known little about.

“None of us dream that our babies will need The Arc [a national organization providing services for people with disabilities],” Ms. Petersen said. “You go on a journey that you don’t expect to. It’s had a huge impact on our lives.”

The Petersens became involved with The Arc when Leslie, now 42, was a baby. The organization also assisted younger brother, Matthew, who died eight years ago at age 30.

While raising her children, Ms. Petersen earned an Associate of Arts degree from Kirkwood Community College in 1979, followed by a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration with a psychology minor from Mount Mercy College in 1981. During that time, she also worked as a paraprofessional in the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

After receiving her business degree, she took a job as a supervisor in the marketing department at Teleconnect in Cedar Rapids, where she developed new products and services. In 1988, she resigned to volunteer full-time at The Arc.

“I really needed to take a break – my kids were having issues,” Ms. Petersen said. “I wanted to give back to The Arc.”

During her time as a volunteer, she secured a grant for providing respite for families and caregivers, a program she continued to head and advocate for until her retirement.

Ms. Petersen’s first paid position at The Arc came in 1990 when she was named executive director. Although she “came in first and foremost as a parent,” she believed her business background could improve the organization’s future.

“Most human services [agencies] are run by social workers,” she said. “I knew we needed to have a business framework.”

Her determination was strengthened that year after a major funder told her that The Arc would likely be gone within six months. She began networking, strengthened the organization’s board and worked with Linn County to secure more grants.

In 1990, The Arc had an annual budget of $140,000 and relied heavily upon the United Way to fund 65 percent of its programs. By the time Ms. Petersen retired in December 2015, a successful endowment campaign raised $1.3 million and the Arc had an annual budget of $5 million.

“The Arc of East Central Iowa grew, because of Delaine’s talent and passion for serving individuals with disabilities and their families, from a one-person office to an office employing a 350-member staff (37 who are full-time), and with an annual budget of nearly $5 million,” Frank Varvaris wrote in his nomination of Ms. Petersen. Mr. Varvaris is owner of Frank Varvaris & Associates, an independent firm in Cedar Rapids providing specialized planning assistance to clients with disabilities and their families.

The Arc serves more than 800 individuals in seven counties in Eastern Iowa, a vast expansion from when it just served Linn County, as it did when Ms. Petersen arrived.

“For decades, she has been among the most visible proponents of service development for those with disabilities, and advocates for the continued improvements in the lives of our most vulnerable in the local, state and national communities,” wrote Doug Cunningham, executive director, The Arc of Iowa, in his nomination letter.

In 2014, Ms. Petersen developed an endowment committee to better secure the agency’s future after it was hit by the flood of 2008 and then the recession. The committee surpassed its goal of raising $1.2 million by the end of 2015.

“I want that to be my legacy,” Ms. Petersen said, adding that the successful campaign was a factor in her decision to retire. “I wanted to hand it off when things were good and the strategic plan was expiring. It was time for someone else to take the risk.”

She still advocates for The Arc and plans to get involved on a statewide level. She is past chair of the Iowa Department of Social Services Developmental Disabilities Advisory Board and a representative of the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s special education task force.

“I’m very healthy at 67; I have a huge amount of energy,” she said, adding that going to Cuba is on her bucket list. “Now I pick and choose how to spend my energy.”

– Angela Holmes