Donna Cates of Becoming Independent wins a North Bay Business Journal Nonprofit Leadership Award

Donna Cates

President, Board of Directors

Becoming Independent

1425 Corporate Center Parkway

Santa Rosa 95407


Spanish line: 707-524-6714

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?

The BI staff quickly pivoted, creating a robust set of virtual supports including everything from Zoom book clubs and dance parties to cooking classes and mutual support groups. In support of our fiscal health, we did a deep dive into how best to utilize existing staff in a way that would provide the very best support in the most efficient manner, which at times meant departments working more collaboratively than ever before.

What achievements are you most proud of?

During my time as BI’s board president, I am most proud of the way the organization has shown not just resiliency, but a stubborn refusal to accept mediocrity. Even in the midst of great adversity, we not only survive, but we emerge from the storm stronger than ever.

What is your biggest challenge today?

Our biggest challenge today is to ensure that during this time of isolation, the people we serve remain connected to BI, to each other, and to their community

Once the virtual supports were created by staff, it became evident that lack of access to reliable technology was a barrier. Now, we are in the middle of a campaign to raise the funds needed in order to ensure that both clients and staff have the tools they need to effectively adapt to this new day.

We are committed to ensuring that none of the people we serve are left in the dark, and that everyone maintains their sense of belonging, especially in these uncertain times.

What is the next major project either under way or on the horizon?

Our next major project is to redevelop our South Campus building.

BI has always understood that as times change, we need to be in the forefront of the movement. Now, everything has changed, and so, once again, we will not only adapt, but we will innovate.

Our South Campus building worked well for us pre-COVID, and as we prepare to once again provide face-to-face services, we are energized to transform the building into a space that works safely, efficiently, and specifically for the benefit of the people we serve. What a way to welcome everyone home!

What product or service would/or is helping you do your job more effectively?

One word: Technology. When in-person services had to be suspended in mid-March due to COVID-19, staff met the moment by creating a wide range of virtual supports.

A divide quickly became evident between those who have their own technology and those who do not. Our 2020 Technology Campaign is now in full swing, with a goal of raising $500,000 by the end of the year to ensure that everyone can acquire reliable technology in order to access all of the social and educational offerings that have been created.

We do not want anyone to suffer from being isolated and not have access to social interactions where they can thrive.

How do you think your profession will change in the next five years?

I believe the virtual classes will continue to be an important part of our programs. We have proven it can be done successfully and many of the participants have expressed their desire to continue with some virtual classes even when in-person services resume.

In keeping with current best practices in the field, BI will continue to transition away from congregate settings and toward greater community-based supports. We have found our clients thrive with more exposure to the community and all it has to offer. Being in the community, interacting with the public and having the opportunity to do “what everyone else can do” is a desire for many of our clients.

Describe a fond memory you have about working with staff/client: Every year, we have the BI Olympics. This gives every participant, regardless of their abilities, the opportunity to enter sporting categories they would like to compete in. There are approximately 10 events like: flag football, relay races, sprints, ring toss, ladder ball, etc., that are modified, if needed, so everyone can participate.

The board members are invited to cheer the athletes on and to also award the medals (gold, silver, bronze) to each of the winners.

This is my favorite event. The clients are so excited to be able to participate in the events; they cheer each other on and everyone wants to win, but they are so gracious and congratulatory to the winners when they do not win themselves.

It is so impressive to see this level of positive sportsmanship from everyone. And it is truly heartwarming to see the absolute jubilation when the winners come up to receive their medals and want to shake my hand or give me a hug. I absolutely love this interaction with the participants.

What other community involvement would you like people to know about?

I am a member of the Impact 100 Redwood Circle in Santa Rosa, which is a giving circle of women of all ages and backgrounds who are passionate about making our community a better place. We work together to inspire one another to learn about philanthropy, to give back, and to volunteer. We believe that together we can truly make an impact.


Most admired businessperson outside your organization: I would have to say Ken Maiolini. I was introduced to Ken and his wife, Sharon through Becoming Independent. They have successfully operated their business, Risk Management Services, for many years. I am incredibly impressed by Ken and Sharon’s level of philanthropy as they support many agencies and causes. We should all aspire to emulate them!

Current reading: I am currently reading “The Self-Driven Child” by William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson. I am hoping to get some useful ideas to help my son.

For pleasure, I just finished “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante. I have been part of a book club with 20 women, for over 15 years. We started the group when our children were in elementary school together. We read a variety of books as we rotate through the group monthly so each member gets the opportunity to make a selection.

Most want to meet: I would enjoy meeting Condoleezza Rice. I think she is brilliant and I would really be interested in learning about her time as the first African American National Security Advisor, U.S. Secretary of State and also the first woman as well as African American woman to serve as provost of Stanford University.

What motivates you to volunteer your time and talent?

I want to make a difference. I want to help those who often cannot help themselves and do not have someone to advocate for them. I find a great deal of satisfaction working with the staff at BI as I feel we have similar goals and a strong desire to create as many opportunities as possible for our clients to be successful, included and also to be recognized.

How do I think the role of a board member will change in the next five years?

I think a great deal of a board’s focus will be placed on financial stability of the agency. Many non-profits have suffered losses during the pandemic due to the inability to host fundraisers.

Also, with so many people losing their incomes and their houses, they must focus on their survival, rather than being able to support charities. Board members will need to be creative in assisting the non-profit as they navigate through this crisis and find alternate revenue streams.

What are the lasting impacts on people volunteering or service on boards as the result of the COVID-19 crisis?

I think board members may have more demands in their personal lives, due to the crisis. They may want to support a non-profit as a board member, but may not have the time, due to other responsibilities, such as helping their children with virtual learning, or having to find a new job or retraining for a new career, or having to relocate. I think COVID is going to permanently change the way we all do business.

Anything to add: I would like to take a moment to talk about my son Geordi, who is 24 years old and has autism. I wish I had his disposition! He is always happy, which is infectious to everyone around him.

If I am having a bad day, being around him for just a moment can immediately brighten my day and make me happy. He is not judgmental; he is kind and curious and he does not even understand prejudice. If everyone could be like him, the world would be a much better place. He does not see autism as a disability; it is just a part of his life. We all need to be more accepting of others and their differences.

Stress relievers: Walking on the beach, walking around redwood trees, watching comedy shows and just looking out the windows at my house at the beautiful scenery

Favorite hobbies: Playing golf, snorkeling, bike riding

Social media you most use: Facebook

Buzz word from your industry you dislike the most: Disabled. The word disability is very prevalent in our society as it can be used to describe an entire category of people. However, it often carries a social stigma, which it should not, as the people in this category are no less than anyone else; they are just differently abled.

Typical day at the office: I have been retired from our company for eight years. However, I am so busy every day that I do not know how I ever fit in working in our company. My days are spent working with my son, doing research on different methodologies and materials to help him, and collaborating with the specialists that work with him. I also spend a lot of time in my role as Board President at BI.

Best place to work outside the office: In the middle of the redwood trees or at the beach.

Words that best describe me: Compassionate, kind, generous, logical, focused

Donna Cates

President, Board of Directors

Becoming Independent

1425 Corporate Center Parkway

Santa Rosa 95407


Spanish line: 707-524-6714

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette