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June 1999

Virginia Purcell
Leadership with Passion, Commitment and Understanding




Serendipitous isn’t a word we use every day. But in exploring the path of Virginia Purcell’s life, there simply isn’t a more fitting word.


As Executive Director of  the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Western New York, Purcell calls upon lessons learned from the many unexpected twists and turns her life has taken.


After spending her earliest years in Independence, Missouri, Virginia’s family returned to her mother’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, where she and her brother, Lewis Sprague went to local schools in and around Buffalo.


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Brother Lewis with four year old Ginny. High School, 1960.

Common threads in her life have always been passion, commitment and understanding the value of introspection.


At the age of eighteen, Purcell entered the religious order of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge. Her eight years in the monastery on Best Street laid the cornerstone of introspection and its value in her life. “Self-reflection assists all of us on many levels. One becomes more of a risk taker, pushing beyond preconceived limits. It helps diminish one’s fear of failure and makes one aware of the tentativeness of success.” It was there that her love of painting and writing found its greatest expression.


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As Sister M. St. Clare.

After leaving the order Purcell married, started a family and from al appearances settled into what seemed to be a traditional life. She was, however, more interested in creating new traditions than in following old ones.


After living in Italy for a year she returned to the U.S. with a deeper understanding of herself and what it means to be part of a broader community. “Foreign cultures help you define yourself within a global context,” she said.


The common threads in Purcell’s life began to weave together when, as a social worker at Our lady of Victory Infant home she was provided opportunities to develop innovative programs and skills that would serve her well as the agency’s future administrator. It was at O.L.V. that her creativity in problem solving and strategizing were nurtured. It was also an environment well suited to her desire to bring together diverse groups in order to make an impact.


She had a unique knowledge of the challenges faced by children with special needs and their families, who were served by the Infant Home. The Purcell’s younger child Sarah, was diagnosed with epilepsy at an early age. “every parent learns a great deal from their children. The enrichment a child with a disability brings to a parent’s life is incredible.”


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Ginny with grandson, Mark James, her daughter Sarah, son Mark and mom, Catherine Morriss. Grandson Mark James, Christmas 1998.

In 1989 Purcell joined the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Western New York as Associate Executive Director and in 1992 became Executive Director. The Western New York Agency serves individuals with developmental disabilities such as mental retardation, autism, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions and multiple disabilities. In the several years since Purcell has taken the helm, the UCPA’s annual revenues have grown from $16 million to $26 million. The agency serves nearly 2,000 people daily across 42 sites and employs over 900 persons.


Services offered by UCPA include: case management, residential, clinical, day habilitation, educational, day care, early intervention, assistive computer technology evaluation and training, transportation services, vocational training, supported employment and recreational opportunities.


Purcell is the first to say that every success the agency has experienced has been due to the commitment of its staff and that of the Western New York community. “We have been fortunate at UCPA to have such strong community support. It’s very rewarding to see that the community needs, understands and values the work we do and, more importantly, the people we serve.”


Being an advocate for persons with disabilities in the community as well as a “true believer” in Buffalo and the Niagara region have been common themes in emphasized collaboration and consensus building as operating principles within UCPA and as part of her efforts in the community.


She has served as President of Leadership Buffalo, the United Way’s Executive Association, the Western New York Developmental Disabilities Planning Council and is presently chair of the Buffalo/Niagara Partnership’s Not-for-Profit Council.


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Hitting the trails with horse "Tim" in Arizona, 1994. Ginny and mom Catherine at Olympic Torch relay in 1996.

Other Boards on which she participates are: Coordinated Care, New York State Rehabilitation Association, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the Mayor’s Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities, The Developmental Disabilities Alliance of western New York, Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency and KeyBank’s Advisory Board.


Recipient of numerous awards for her leadership locally as well as national recognition, Purcell adheres to a belief that a leader’s accomplishments are contingent upon the collaborative Commitment and skill of others to actualize a vision that will have real impact in a community.


The impact of Virginia Purcell and the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Western New York is felt every day by the people for whom the agency exists. Innovative programs, a large, dedicated work force, targeted strategies, passion and commitment to the agency’s mission have built the UCPA into the success it is. But the true measure of success is the people.


“At the end of the day, what really matters is making a positive difference in the lives of the individuals we touch and the community in which we live.”


Barb Browning is Coordinator of Public Relations and Marketing for UCPA of WNY. 


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