By Andrew Sondern
After serving as executive director of Eden Autism Services since 2005, Dr. Tom McCool announced he would retire no later than June of 2014. Eden’s board has started a search for his successor.
Eden Autism Services provides services to children and adults with autism through vocational training, group homes and education. Eden has a broader mission than to be a school for children with autism. It developed its own curriculum, which it distributes to others, and it partners with WaWa Food Markets to employ adults with autism.
McCool sought to focus this mission. At the beginning of his tenure in 2005, the Lawrence resident established himself as a reformer by conducting an internal survey of Eden’s strengths and weaknesses and establishing a strategic plan. Since then, Eden has built a new facility, consolidated operations, and initiated a strong capital campaign.
Eden was also fraught with organizational redundancies. The organization had developed into four separate corporations and ambiguously called itself the Eden Family of Services. Under McCool’s leadership, Eden consolidated to two corporations and was renamed Eden Autism Services.
“For years, Eden had talked about building an ideal school for children with autism, but nothing had been done,” McCool said. “And we had no infrastructure, no human resources, no IT department, and our financial offices were not up to par with a $20 million organization, so I used the school as catalyst.”
The problem was that Eden, then located in a cramped, 1950s telephone-switching station outside of Princeton, was losing money annually. Insufficient fundraising did not cover losses from adult services, and Eden was without an endowment.
McCool scrapped Eden’s accounting system and focused on a capital campaign that recognized Eden’s need for an endowment and better fundraising results. Eden sought to raise $7 million: $4 million for the construction of a new school and $3 million to start an endowment.
By the time the new facility opened in October of 2011, Eden had raised over $5 million and more than doubled its administrative and instructional space. The modern facility, designed by KSS Architects, was built on the site of a former pre-school and has much increased classroom and office space. There is a playground, gymnasium and even a WaWa convenience store, which is used for vocational training.
McCool’s retirement marks a capstone on a career path devoted to helping people with autism. He started his career as an English teacher at public high school, and he was occasionally asked to teach in special education classrooms.
He went back to school to earn his master’s in counseling at West Chester State University, and he got a job working in the special education center of a public school. Not long after, McCool was asked to work in private and vocational schools for Devereux, a national nonprofit behavioral health organization.
He left Devereux to help establish a program for children with autism at Bancroft, a service-provider for people with developmental disabilities in Haddonfield. By 1985, though, McCool was back at Devereux, where he oversaw the organization’s California operations until 1996. He stayed at Devereux until 2005.
In 2004, McCool learned that Dr. David Holmes, the founder of Eden, was retiring. Holmes started Eden in 1975, and transformed it from a school with 14 students operating out of a church basement to a $20 million dollar operation.
“He’s done the remarkable job of furthering what Eden stands for, and that’s life long support for people with autism,” said Holmes of his successor. “But it’ll always be a challenge to find someone to run an organization like Eden,” he added.
McCool plans to move back to California, but he will likely spend time in Philadelphia as well. He also plans travel to Ireland and Italy, where his wife Cathy has family. Cathy was a concierge at the Whole Foods in Princeton, but took time off to recover from surgery.
“I plan to make myself available to programs and families who are interested in expanding services to children and adults with autism,” McCool said. “[T]here is a place for their children long after the family is not around to take care of them.”