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April 1997

The Clarkson Center...

...Making A Difference in Western New York

 

by Linda N. MEYER

 

Twenty-six years ago a group of friends and neighbors joined together and founded the Allentown Community Center.

Concerned about conditions in their socially and economically mixed neighborhood, they raised money to purchase an empty church on Elmwood Avenue to serve as the physical center. Then they set about creating a community agency that would offer pre-school activities, arts and crafts, homemaker classes, study
programs, parenting classes, a well-baby clinic, activities for senior citizens, and much more.

One of the founding members of this group was Max B.E. Clarkson.

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Max B.E. Clarkson

Today, the Allentown Community Center has evolved into The Clarkson Center, one of Erie County’s largest human service organizations. A staff of 110 serve over 8,500 individuals in an average year. The Center has a budget of more than $5 million annually.

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The Clarksons get a tour of the Adult Day Care Center’s
modern kitchen with Viola Lollie (at right), a volunteer.

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Max Clarkson joins Audrey Bowens, a volunteer, and
Tim Raymond, art specialist, in the Adult Day Care Center.

But the original mission remains strong-to provide, not a hand-out, but the means to help oneself. Through 45 programs, staff and volueers work to train individuals for productive jobs, to keep children in safe environments, to help older citizens live independently, and to preserve some of Buffalo’s aging homes.

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Ken Cowdery and Max Clarkson review a computer lesson in progress.

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Max Clarkson checks a student's work at The Clarkson Center.

Kenneth H. Cowdery serves as president of this social purpose enterprise that reaches far beyond the original Allentown neighborhood.

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Kenneth H. Cowdery

Both Max Clarkson and Ken Cowdery have been involved with this agency for most of its existence, but they came to it in very different ways. They are from two different generations; they live in two different cities, but their mutual belief in the agency’s mission and goals has forged a unique bond between the two men.

Max Clarkson came to Buffalo from Toronto in 1947 to take control of a small subsidiary of his father’s larger, Canadian-based business. He had made a deal with his father to do this for three years; then he would resume his original career path as a professor of English.

Almost thirty years passed before he returned to an academic life. In between, he turned a small printing business into the Graphic Controls Corporation- a multi-national corporation with operations in ten countries; he introduced workplace policies that were revolutionary for the 1950s; he lectured in the field of corporate responsibility.

Ken Cowdery came to Buffalo in 1973. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in English, Cowdery signed on to work for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). When his stint as a VISTA volunteer was over, he went to work for the Allentown Community Center as a youth counselor and never left.

It is ironic that these two men, who have both had a tremendous impact on shaping the direction of this agency, did not meet until 1988. Clarkson left Buffalo shortly after Cowdery arrived. Returning to Toronto, he became Dean of the Faculty of Management at the University of Toronto in 1975 and held that post until 1980. A stint as professor of management at the University followed.

Thirty years his junior, Cowdery was working his way up through the agency from counselor to job developer to program director and, finally, to serve as president starting in 1986.

In the late 1980s, as the agency planned strategies for the next decade, the board of directors contemplated a name change. Their area of service had long outgrown the Allentown area and a broader name was needed to reflect this. From a field of 40 possibilities, the selection was narrowed to four, and ultimately to one-The Clarkson Center, reflecting the strong influence that this founding member continued to exert. During this time of change, Cowdery and Clarkson finally met and their visions merged.

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Max and Madeleine Clarkson display the “Phoenix” award that is presented each year to recipients of The Clarkson Center’s Courage to Come Back Awards. The original sculpture was created by Mrs. Clarkson.

Max Clarkson credits his parents with instilling in him a sense of the responsibility that comes with privilege. He explains that, “it sounds trite and corny, but I’ve always believed that from those to whom much has been given, much is expected.” It is a belief that he has put into practice throughout his life. Corporate social responsibility and business ethics remain the focus of his academic interests.

Cowdery’s interest in human service work was the result of his generation’s attitude toward social responsibility. He remembers, “I did a lot of soul searching during my senior year because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I had grown up in the sixties and I was passionate about social change. Martin Luther King Jr. had a profound impact on my decision making. I wanted to make a difference. Joining VISTA seemed a perfect fit for me, but my family thought I was crazy.”

Cowdery considers Max Clarkson his mentor-and more. “He continually challenges me to remember that excellence is the issue...to remember who our stakeholders are, that we are dealing with human lives and human potential. When I need a sounding board, it’s Max that I turn to first. The relationship I have with Max is very special.”

Although Clarkson has made his home in Toronto for the last twenty years, he remains keenly interested in the agency that he helped establish. As Cowdery notes, “Because he understands our challenges, he continues to be able to open doors for us. He serves on the board as a ‘member emeritus’ but is actively involved in the
decision-making process on many key issues. His investment in this organization has been tremendous.”

As changes in government funding and welfare reform begin to be implemented in earnest, Clarkson and Cowdery have discussed in depth the need for the agency to become less dependent on government funding. In effect, the need to create their own wealth. Max Clarkson’s business acumen has helped to determine where expertise gained through non-profit services can be translated into entrepreneurial ventures that will provide revenues to fund other services.

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The Clarkson Center home energy program provides insulation and energy conservation to low-income homeowners.

As The Clarkson Center prepares to move into a new century, the philosophies that lie beneath social responsibility will continue to be redefined; these two men will continue to do their part. For Max Clarkson and Ken Cowdery, providing others with the means to help themselves is a way of life.

Linda N. Meyer is a freelance writer from Eden, New York.
Photos by David Gordon and The Clarkson Center.

 

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