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Journal North Bay GIVES award: A daughter’s story of emerging from the shadows

North Bay GIVES Awards

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Becky Cleveland was born prematurely at 23 weeks, weighing only 1 pound two ounces. She spent four months in a neonatal intensive care unit.

Though she beat the odds, her parents suspected she might have health issues.

“It took us five years to get a good diagnosis,” her father Paul says. “Everyone is familiar with the term autism now, but in 1987 we had to research it, and suggest it to our doctor. As soon as we got involved with other parents and professionals who were trained in autism, our little girl made huge strides.”

They moved from the East Coast to San Mateo in the Bay Area and watched as Becky continued to grow.

As with many parents of children with special needs, there came a time when the Clevelands “entered panic mode.” What would happen when their child, and others like her, grew up and they were no longer there?

When the couple could not find a suitable residential situation for Becky, they joined with a small group of other parents to design and build an innovative new model of supportive housing for people with autism. They chose the town of Sonoma to locate Sweetwater Spectrum, a residential facility for those like her.

“I felt in that moment that Becky progressed in her social understanding of her surroundings. It was also a step up in terms of her becoming her own self and realizing that she has a talent that other people appreciate.” Paul Cleveland, Becky’s father, describing her winning a singing event

When Becky was 25, she moved there from the family home. The Clevelands continue to fund the nonprofit and Paul is currently on the board of directors.

After going through the process of finding the right living situation for their daughter, the couple was equally determined to find a program which could care for her needs during the day.

Debbie says, “There has been an unsavory history of disabled toddlers being dropped off by their parents at the door of an institution and they would be there for their entire lives. That’s why, by law in California, you can’t combine residential and day programs.”

That lead them to Santa Rosa-based Becoming Independent.

“The values that drive Becoming Independent—human dignity, empowerment, integrity, community, innovation—are the same as our values,” Paul says.

“We increased our philanthropy dramatically to BI partly because we believe there needs to be more creative thinking on how to take what has been done so far and expand it broadly. Most people don’t have experience with disabled children or siblings and don’t appreciate the fact that people with disabilities are very marginalized and have a very low rate of employment. It’s hard to find programs that will take these folks into the mainstream. Many individuals need training and support, like our daughter with autism; it’s part of the profile for that disability that you can’t just drop them into a new situation and have them know how to behave.”

The Clevelands contributed to BI which is building a state-of-the art program headquarters in Santa Rosa for its education, social connection, personal growth, and vocational training.

DesCor Builders broke ground on Oct. 22 and BI leadership projects a Summer 2022 completion date.

As for the workers who can be hired from BI, Debbie says, “The community needs to understand that people with disabilities don’t have the typical skills that we look for in a volunteer or a paid employee, but they have different skills that are helpful, that make them a joy to be around or an interesting person to have as a co-worker. They are fully capable of adding to whatever environment they are participating in. If businesses are only looking for the standard abilities, they will miss out on an opportunity to really enhance their organization.”

It is not all about employment training, however. Paul and Debbie tell the story of how their daughter won first prize in Becoming Independent’s talent show, leading to her singing the national anthem at a Sonoma Stompers baseball game.

“Our daughter speaks like a toddler—two- or three-word utterances. There is not a lot of language she understands,” says Paul “You may have heard that people who have some impairments, like stroke victims, can sing even though they can’t speak. Singing is something Becky has enjoyed because she can put many more words together when she is singing. One of the fantastic BI staff members noticed Becky singing to herself and began to coach her for the talent show. The second year, Becky was able to go out on the stage by herself and perform ‘America the Beautiful.’”

“The community needs to understand that people with disabilities don’t have the typical skills that we look for in a volunteer or a paid employee, but they have different skills that are helpful, that make them a joy to be around or an interesting person to have as a co-worker,” Debbie Cleveland

“She has a sweet voice, and we were blown away listening to her, and even more shocked that she won! But she didn’t exactly understand what was happening and when they were looking for her to present this oversized blue ribbon, she was wandering around backstage. Everyone was shouting and there was a lot of commotion. When she finally understood, I had never seen such a wide smile on her face before!

“I felt in that moment that Becky progressed in her social understanding of her surroundings. It was also a step up in terms of her becoming her own self and realizing that she has a talent that other people appreciate. It was a great moment for us to watch as parents. It’s like she grew up in front of our eyes.”

Paul and Debbie support not just the things their daughter is involved in and the disabled community as a whole but are also interested in working with groups that have been shunted to the edges of society, who haven’t been given a central role or are stigmatized.

“What motivates us is the need to bring these people out of the shadows to give them the same opportunities the rest of us have.”

On the Clevelands’ wish list for policy changes is a national strategy that develops long-term housing situations for people with disabilities and makes it an affordable, high-quality option for families. They note that the state of California supports the aides who come every day to Sweetwater Spectrum and state funds augment Becoming Independent’s budget. Many places in the U.S. don’t even begin to offer such support.

Paul says, “I have become more and more fed up with very fortunate people who don’t realize how fortunate they are. I would say I have become radicalized since I stopped working two years ago, and I’ve become fed up with such weird selfishness…I’m much more aware of the unfairness of life for people who are smarter and harder working than we are and didn’t have the good fortune to be born in a wealthy neighborhood to American parents or in a fancy home in the diplomatic corps.

“We have transferred some of our giving from the peninsula to Sonoma because that’s where Becky’s future is, and we have been spending more time here,” adds Debbie. “At the end of each year we ask ourselves, ‘How much did we make and how much are we going to give away?” We want that to be a pretty high number.”

North Bay GIVES Awards

Read profiles of all the awards winners.

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