Jo Ann Simons and Cushing Centers featured in Boston Business Journal

JAS By Jay Fitzgerald


As a young woman fresh out of graduate school, Jo Ann Simons envisioned a career as a social worker focusing on women’s issues.
At the age of 25, though, she became pregnant and later gave birth to a son, Jonathan, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome and heart defects — and her whole world changed.

“I imagined there would be all these support services in place, but they weren’t there,” she said. “I was left with a trial-and-error (situation) and with very little literature to fall back on. I eventually thought, ‘Why not turn a challenge into something else?’ ”
So she made a career out of fighting for the rights of her son and other people with disabilities: She says they deserve an education, health care, jobs, housing and just plain respect from a society that too often turns its back on those with any type of disability.
Thirty-five years after the birth of her son, Simons is still fighting for those rights as chief executive of the Cardinal Cushing Centers, which operates in Hanover and Braintree, and has 11 group homes on the South Shore serving hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities and autism. The nonprofit Cardinal Cushing Centers employs more than 600 people on a $26 million budget.
After six years at the helm of Cardinal Cushing Centers, Simons is now embarking on what she considers long overdue projects designed to further enhance the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.
In Hanover, Cardinal Cushing is putting the finishing touches on plans, as well as fundraising efforts, to build a new 37-unit “workforce” housing project where people with and without disabilities and living on modest salaries, such as school teachers and firefighters, can live alongside each other. The idea is to create a new neighborhood, not just a campus-like setting, where people from all walks of life can interact.
At its Braintree center, Cardinal Cushing has also partnered with the Meeting House Montessori School. This fall, the private school for kids preschool to fifth grade will be renting space at Cushing’s Braintree facility, also home to the St. Coletta Day School. The idea again: to let children from all walks of life interact with and learn from each other.
“It’s a beautiful concept and exciting,” said Simons, who in the past has also served as executive director of EMARC (previously known as the Arc of East Middlesex), another group that helps those with developmental disabilities. She’s also a trustee at LIFE Inc. and a consultant to the Special Olympics, both serving those with disabilities.
James Brett, a former state representative and current president of the New England Council, has known Simons for years, first meeting her when she was testifying on Beacon Hill about intellectual-disabilities issues. Brett’s older brother also had intellectual disabilities.
“Jo Ann is a giant in the intellectual disabilities community,” said Brett. “She’s extremely well thought of and respected. She’s been a great teacher on the subject. She’s a true leader and very visionary.”
Simons has accomplished a lot since the birth of her son, who today is 35 and lives independently on Cape Cod, working two jobs, one at a country-club pro shop and the other bagging groceries at a local supermarket. She also has a daughter, Emily, 31, an attorney at Boston’s Ropes & Gray.
“The idea is to really build an inclusive community for everyone,” she said of her current efforts at Cardinal Cushing Centers. “As we say: a place to play, a place to learn, a place to work, a place to shop, a place to pray.”

Jo Ann Simons
Title: President and Chief Executive Officer, Cardinal Cushing Centers
Age: 61
Education: Bachelors degree, urban studies, Wheaton College, 1975; master’s degree, social work, University of Connecticut, 1977
Residence: Swampscott

Posted in

About Cushing Centers

Since 1947, Cushing's caring community has been a place where exceptional individuals of all ages and abilities have found possibility, opportunity, and hope, receiving support to achieve independence and meaningful relationships across home, work, school, and leisure.

Stay in the Know!

Join the Cushing Email Newsletter.

Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.