Donna Cates of Becoming Independent wins a North Bay Business Journal Nonprofit Leadership Award
Professional background: For the last 30 years, my husband Bryan and I have owned our own company, Telecommunications Designs. I worked at our company in a variety of capacities: human resources, invoicing, and customer service and procedure documentation. I retired from Telecommunications Designs eigth years ago to focus on working with our son, Geordi who has autism.
Prior to starting our own company, I worked at Vision Service Plan and Foundation Health in Sacramento and Rancho Cordova for several years. I was the customer service manager and ran the call center at both locations.
Education: I attended California State University, Stanislaus and California State University, Sacramento. I majored in business administration.
Number of Staff: 154 staff members at Becoming Independent
Describe your organization: Becoming Independent (BI) is a social impact organization established over 50 years ago to support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in their quest to become engaged, productive, and valued members of our community. Our core values of human dignity, empowerment, integrity, community, and innovation are at the heart of our vision – a community of innovative partnerships, fostering authentic human connections.
BI offers a wide range of supportive services for adults with IDD including autism, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, and epilepsy. My son is among the people served in BI’s Passport to Independence program, which was created to better meet the immediate needs of our region’s rapidly expanding population of young adults with autism.
This organization started as a grassroots group founded in 1967 by a small group of local parents determined to create an alternative to institutionalization for their adult children with disabilities. Today, the agency has grown to become one of California’s most innovative and respected agencies serving adults with IDD.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: I was born and attended school in Merced, California.
I then moved to Roseville, California to pursue a job in my field of interest. My husband and I eventually started our own business and relocated to the Santa Rosa area in December 1999. I worked in several different capacities in our company for the next 12 years.
During that time, I also began volunteering at my son’s school. I was a part of the Harmony Ark Education Foundation for 9 years and served as vice-president and secretary. During my tenure, the Education Foundation at Harmony School raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. We supported a variety of ongoing classes and programs for the students, such as: drama, music, science for the elementary students, sports, the garden, field trips, Renaissance Fridays, and new play structures.
I have a son who is 24 and has autism. It was a priority for my husband and I that Geordi be fully included from kindergarten to the 12th grade. This took a lot of ongoing research, planning and preparation on my part, and I am proud to say that Geordi was included in the regular classes with other students approximately 85% of the time.
Once Geordi completed high school, I was approached by Becoming Independent to join their task force in developing a program for adults on the autism spectrum. I toured their facility, met several of the participants and the staff, and I was immediately hooked.
I was so impressed with the campus, the program offerings, the dedication of the staff, and most of all, the sheer happiness and excitement expressed by the participants. I have been on the board of directors at BI for eight years.
Role in the organization: This is my second year at the president of the board of directors. I have been on the board for eight years. I am also on the fund development committee.
How has your organization been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
When COVID-19 closed down BI’s ability to provide face-to-face supports, all of BI, including the families of the people we serve, were handed a new reality, and this new reality has been incredibly challenging. Shoring up of all these challenges – job insecurity, health uncertainty, financial concerns – is one common, troubling thread: Isolation.
All of us were abruptly separated from our vital community support systems, and even from much of our families. For many adults with IDD, social exclusion and isolation is something they are all too familiar with, and thankfully, BI understood how vital it was to keep all of us connected.
What are the ways your organization responded to increased demands for services, and fiscally, in what has your organization been forced to adjust?