A helping hand

A nonprofit that serves people with disabilities needs help of its own

Clients of Choices’ day services program in Rancho Cordova pose in front of artwork created in the program.

Clients of Choices’ day services program in Rancho Cordova pose in front of artwork created in the program.

Photo by Margherita Beale

Malana Bell-Jones says her favorite part about working with Meghan is listening to her sing. When she sings, Meghan calms down, gets lost in the music and gets to be herself.

Bell-Jones spends 14 to 16 hours a day, six days a week with Meghan, one of more than 700,000 California residents living with a developmental disability.

Bell-Jones makes between $12 and $14 an hour after four years working with Choices Person Centered Services, a Sacramento-area nonprofit that offers supported living services, independent living services and day services to people with disabilities.

“This world is a hard one to understand until you walk this path,” she said. “The people we help, they’re awesome, like some of the best people I’ve ever met ever. They’re so positive. And a lot of them have had struggles.”

But Choices and its employees are facing their own struggles.

Even with the long hours, many of its case workers aren’t making a living wage. And because of the lack of state funding, Choices executive director Nancy Chance says she can’t raise their pay and is having difficulty finding qualified employees.

The nonprofit hopes to raise at least $25,000 in the annual Big Day of Giving on Thursday, organized by the Sacramento Region Community Foundation for more than 600 nonprofits. In the past three years, Choices received $5,200 from the 24-hour online fundraising marathon.

Chance says state funding rates for developmental services have been stagnant for years. This year, the nonprofit received around $7.6 million and is currently operating at a deficit of $300,000. That prevents pay increases and could eventually lead to cut-offs in electricity or internet service or losses in rental space.

The nonprofit’s finances have been further affected by recent statewide initiatives to help workers, including paid sick leave, health insurance and increases in both overtime pay and the minimum wage.

In March, the California Department of Developmental Services released its rate study for 2019, which said that to provide adequate resources for people with developmental disabilities, the state would need to allocate $1.8 billion. The study also found that outside of the minimum wage and overtime increases, payment rates were relatively unchanged between 2003 and 2015.

Chance and Bell-Jones said the nonprofit is trying to make legislators understand the importance of their services and to make sure workers are compensated fairly and to add money in the 2019-20 state budget accordingly.

Sophie is a client of Choices’ day services program.

Photo by Margherita Beale

More choices for the disabled

The 1969 Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act outlines the rights and responsibilities of Californians with developmental disabilities, and created regional centers to coordinate services and support for these individuals and their families.

Choices, which started in 1988, receives clients from 21 regional centers, including Alta California Regional Center in Sacramento. It operates on five principles, which include letting individuals choose where to live, creating a support system and involving the community.

Chance says that people with disabilities often aren’t given enough options.

“If somebody says, ‘Do you want a piece of fruit?’ And the only fruit you know about is an apple and a banana, you’re going to choose an apple or a banana. You don’t know that orange exists,” she said. “So you’re not really giving anybody a choice if they don’t know what all the options are.”

Chance has first-hand experience. Her husband, Richard, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a 2006 car collision. Now, he lives with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She says that all she wants for him is to be happy and to never feel scared.

“It’s not about what I think Richard should do. It needs to be what Richard thinks Richard should do,” she said.

This shift toward “person-centered planning” began a year ago. Now, all Choices staffers have been trained in the principles. They are also being incorporated into the nonprofit’s day services, which teach clients vocational training, community integration, self-advocacy, self-expression and functional living skills. Choices offers these services in Elk Grove, Loomis, Rancho Cordova, Roseville, South Lake Tahoe and Truckee.

Jermouneo Nixon, 26, a day service client in Rancho Cordova, says that thanks to the program, he’s reaching goals, his art has improved and he’s eager to try new things.

Choices takes “into consideration that we have disabilities but we’re not being babied because of it,” he said. “I feel comfortable embracing the fact that I have these things but it’s not going to stop me from doing what I want to do in life.”

Gus Garner is a program manager for Warehouse-916, a red brick studio-gallery in Elk Grove’s historic district that allows Choices day program clients to explore their creativity by producing art in a variety of mediums.

But he says the lack of funding and low pay could get in the way. “It’s hard for me knowing that I make a livable wage. And these guys doing all the work that they do aren’t,” Garner said.

Between Choices and his work as a property manager, Warehouse-916 instructor Jesse Alford works 65 hours a week. At Choices, he makes $13 an hour, $2 above the minimum wage. Alford said working both jobs is the only way to make ends meet.

There is more compensation than just money, he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to last as long I have if I didn’t get those moments of bliss, like when you see a client that has been struggling finally get something. You’re just like, ‘Good for you, you’re killing it.’ So to get those sparks along the way has definitely helped keep me around.”

Now, Warehouse-916 has one instructor for three clients, but that ratio may worsen as the program pushes to get more people involved to increase the rates received from the state.

“It’s hard to get good instructors in. We’re lucky that we have good instructors,” Garner said. “But realistically the numbers don’t match up for us to keep going like we’re going. We are going to have to get more [clients] in. That in turn is going to be done without hiring more staff.”

Both Alford and Garner are hopeful that once more people see the difference that person-centered services can have, more funding will come.

“You know this is something that we can put money to because we can see the outcome from it,” Garner said. “These guys are gonna give back to society through the skills that they gain.”