Thomas Zmolek considered a career in photojournalism, but life experiences and a summer science institute during high school led him down a different path, one that still put him on the forefront of social change over the last 40 years.
As MOKA’s long-term executive director, Zmolek has dedicated his career to fighting for inclusivity, acceptance and the dignified treatment of people with physical and developmental disabilities, in part from experiences in his own family.
Hired as one of MOKA’s first co-directors in 1980, Zmolek became executive director soon after, guiding the organization through change, growth and fundamental shifts in the way society treats individuals with physical and developmental disabilities.
“It’s been a human rights movement, it’s been more of a mission than a career so it’s been a good fit,” said Zmolek, who was honored for his professional achievement as part of the MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards. “Everybody’s involved in helping people and we learn a lot from the people we serve. They give back in a lot of ways.”
Zmolek joined MOKA in its infancy, at a time when Michigan was closing down state-run institutions and moving individuals into community-based group homes. He helped place residents from the Muskegon Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities, which closed in 1992.
MOKA serves a region including Muskegon, Ottawa, Kent and Allegan counties. The organization provides a menu of services: specialized residential group homes; community supports to build job and life skills; coordination for medical, psychological and community services; and an applied behavior analysis autism program.
Working from MOKA’s main office in downtown Muskegon, Zmolek finds ways to dabble in journalism and connect with those served by the organization — even writing stories for the nonprofit’s annual report.
He’s especially proud of the Youth Autism Program, which has a separate suite on the first floor with private rooms for individualized treatment. The program helps children with autism and their families learn skills through applied behavior analysis, designed to create behavior change that has a positive impact on the individual’s quality of life.
The program illustrates the strides in services for autistic children, and continues to expand as state and private insurance recognize it as a treatment option.
“Early intervention is so important,” he said. “If they catch it really early, if they go through it early, it’s practically a cure.”
Zmolek also has a personal connection to autism: The Iowa native grew up traveling around the country with his family in search of the best services for his autistic brother, Stuart. In the 1950s and 1960s, autism wasn’t recognized as it is today. His brother wasn’t diagnosed until he turned age 18.
“My brother was a huge influence,” he said. “I can definitely see things through the eyes of a parent.”
After attending a summer institute at Western Michigan University, Zmolek returned for college to study psychology and applied behavior analysis. There, he met his wife, Mary, and the pair found jobs in Montana before returning to Michigan. He later earned a master’s degree in business administration from Grand Valley State University.
At MOKA, Zmolek was hired to open the second of two group homes serving about a dozen people. The agency’s adult foster care homes experienced rapid expansion in the 1980s.
“It really hasn’t been the same job, it’s continued to change,” he said, reflecting on his tenure. “It’s obviously the people that we serve and the mission and the great employees that we are privileged to employ. It’s a package deal.”
Today, MOKA has a budget of $21.5 million, employs more than 500 people and serves more than 800 individuals. There are presently 34 group homes throughout the region, designed to look like normal residences in quiet neighborhoods.
“It’s great to be part of an organization that’s doing good work in the community,” he said. “The mission really is about empowering and helping people live as independently as possible and being included in society.”
Over four decades, Zmolek has led many innovative initiatives to expand opportunities for the developmentally disabled. In 1988, MOKA branched into supported employment through a contract with Michigan Rehabilitation Services (MRS) and placed 100 individuals with disabilities in jobs in the program’s first year.
In 1991, he supported the “Home of my Own” grant, demonstrating that individuals with disabilities could purchase their own homes. The community living support program also expanded in the 1990s and helps individuals with disabilities live independently and achieve their dreams and goals.
In the 2000s, MOKA developed alternative, community-based day programs, resulting in increased community access and awareness, expanded volunteerism and health improvements for participants.
Through the changes and growth, Zmolek has always stayed focused on the mission and people MOKA serves, which is why Director of Programs Tracey Hamlet returned to the organization in 2009.
“He supports his staff to creatively meet the needs of people served and as those needs have changed, to make some changes,” she said. “It really is his calmness that helps his staff function under the pressure, and I think that makes a huge difference.”
Since 2016, the Youth Autism Programs continue to grow in Muskegon and Kent Counties, and MOKA partnered with several agencies to develop the program WEAVE (Working to End Assaults and Violence for Everyone).
Much of MOKA’s funding comes through contracts with the local community mental health agencies, funneled through federal and state contracts and grants, but the organization has diversified its revenue.
“We’ve been buying real estate that has tenants to help subsidize costs and working on increasing our donor base,” he said. “It still is that creative process of looking at community needs and designing programs and finding funders that will support it. You have to approach those problems in an entrepreneurial way.”
Knowing Zmolek prefers to stay out of the spotlight, staff members asked his permission to submit the nomination for this award, and he said he was surprised and grateful to win.
“We’re all excited to honor him as a leader,” said Dorothy Bowne, MOKA’s human resources director. “His accomplishments have all been related to the accomplishments of the agency. The story tells itself on how much MOKA has grown from a small organization to a $21 million agency.”
Zmolek has been a leader not only at MOKA, but within the larger mental health community, and earned a reputation as being dedicated to the individuals served by the organization and its employees. In 2016, he advocated for a wage increase for direct-care workers in response to the shortage of workers and to ensure quality care and services.
Zmolek encourages collaboration, values input from his team and incorporates it into strategic decisions for the agency, Bowne said. He also has a passion for MOKA’s mission and “a deeply personal connection to the work we do,” she said.
“He’s very wise, he is calm and level-headed and says, ‘We can do this, we can tackle this,’” she said. “He’s team-oriented in that he values all of our voices on the team and has deliberately surrounded himself with a strong team.”
Thomas Zmolek, Executive Director, MOKA
Mission: Promoting the growth, empowerment and inclusion of individuals with autism, intellectual and other disabilities in our communities.
Service Area: Muskegon, Ottawa, Kent and Allegan counties
Number of employees: 500
Annual budget: $21.5 million
Management best practices:
- Creating a culture of respect
- Screening for attitude
- Placing leaders at every level
Board of directors: Dale Rietberg (president), Varnum LLP; Charles Zamiara (VP/secretary), retired from State of Michigan; Judi Kuiper, Lincoln School; Thomas Stranz, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from its original version.