Santa Rosa-based Becoming Independent expands programs across North Bay

The nonprofit has grown to be the largest service provider of its kind in the North Bay, serving more than 1,000 people annually. It has seven campuses, including a new Marin County facility.|

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Oma Lee Bridges was tired of being told she wasn’t capable. It made her angry.

Bridges, who has slight paralysis on the left side of her body and suffers from anxiety, said she was made to feel like a “sideshow exhibition” when she was younger.

“I felt like there was a stigma attached to being disabled - I can’t learn, I’m slow … I’m not capable of living,” the 61-year-old Rohnert Park resident said.

Bridges said she started feeling differently about herself after she connected with Becoming Independent, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that provides myriad services to help adults with developmental disabilities live fulfilling lives.

“The dialogue changed when I entered Becoming Independent,” she said of her choice to enroll in the nonprofit’s programs in 1986. “It was interesting because I found out the stuff I could do.”

With assistance from the decades-old organization, she’s been able to live independently, learn valuable life skills, volunteer in the community, attain jobs and create art. Through the process, she’s also found her voice.

“I’m able to speak up for myself more and say when I want something or when I don’t want something,” she said.

She’s been a part of the nonprofit’s professional art program since 2008 and has relished creating drawings and watercolor paintings. She’s meticulously crafted art including a landscape of an English village and works featuring flowers, shapes and pigs. Making art two days a week “sparks her creative juices” and gives her occasional pocket money through art sales handled by Becoming Independent, she said.

On a frigid January morning, she huddled inside a cozy studio at an industrial artisan center in Sonoma County, studying a well-loved sign language pocket guide and working on a new piece. She carefully used bright blue and pink watercolor pens to write phrases: “Right on, Oma,” and “Don’t say that to me!” on a canvas she had painted with red and orange hues. They are “words from the heart,” she said.

Around her in the art-filled space, other program participants painted sunflowers, created collages and adorned paper bags with paintings and drawings. Several of Bridges’ other works hung on the walls of the small space, where artisan-crafted jewelry was displayed along with colorful vases, magnets and coasters.

The art program, along with Becoming Independent’s job training classes, employment assistance and supportive services for independent adults, benefits both participants and the larger community, said Christina Tupper. Tupper, a 47-year-old Becoming Independent art instructor who helps creators shape and expand their techniques, said Becoming Independent helps increase visibility and acceptance.

“It’s giving back, and most importantly, it shows that our guys aren’t how they’ve been stereotyped in the past,” Tupper said. “They’re safe and they want to be part of the community.”

The idea for Becoming Independent was born decades ago when a group of parents with children with disabilities began to explore options other than keeping their children at home or sending them to institutions, said CEO Luana Vaetoe.

“That was kind of the practice that was taught then - keeping them at home hidden away,” said Vaetoe, 39. “There wasn’t a social norm of acceptance and inclusion and parents saw there wasn’t an alternative or an option they were willing to embrace for their children when they were finally becoming adults.”

In 1967, Sonoma County’s first community-based program for adults with developmental disabilities was launched by the parents. The program started with six families, and its expansion was fueled by the passage of the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Act, which defined the rights of people with disabilities, Vaetoe said. By 1980, Becoming Independent gained nonprofit status and incorporated the programs, according to the agency’s website.

The nonprofit has grown to be the largest service provider of its kind in the North Bay, serving more than 1,000 people annually. It has seven campuses, including a new Marin County facility.

Becoming Independent has a staff of about 250 people and operates on a $14 million annual budget, funded largely with money from the state of California, Vaetoe said. It will this year launch its first capital campaign to raise $10 million to revamp its southwest Santa Rosa campus to feature space for programs, events and co-working offices.

The organization focuses on three strategic initiatives: innovative educational day programs and living and employment services, according to its website. It offers training on a range of skills, from managing finances to health and safety, personal and social skills, as well as supportive living services including assistance with personal care. Also offered are transportation and job skills training, along with a medley of other programs.

“The way we approach our services is every aspect of being independent as an adult, from continuing your education to understanding how to manage your household, if that’s a desire you have, to obtaining skills and a job that makes you feel fulfilled that allows you to live as independently as possible,” Vaetoe said.

The organization also has worked with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to host a nationally recognized training to help law enforcement personnel and people with disabilities learn to interact more cohesively and safely, Vaetoe said.

Becoming Independent works with more than 120 businesses to provide employment opportunities to more than 250 program participants, she said. Employment partners include Kaiser Permanente and SMART, where the nonprofit operates concessions services and cafes. It also operates a document shredding business, recently landing the contract for Sonoma County.

Participants, including Bridges, volunteer with organizations such as Meals on Wheels and SNAP Cats, a Sonoma County animal rescue effort that works with special needs cats.

“It’s really a multilayered impact. It’s everything from participating and fueling the economic ecosystem that is Sonoma County by being active, working members of the community to investing that back into the community through volunteerism,” Vaetoe said. “That’s a huge and significant impact that’s mutually benefiting the person with the disability and the organization they’re volunteering for, as well as other volunteers that are in that space and environment. It gives them another lens to view that person with a disability.”

For Bonnie Burrell, a Rohnert Park resident who’s part of the agency’s board of directors, Becoming Independent has been life-changing. Her late son, Todd Burrell, who died in 2015 following a battle with cancer, participated in Becoming Independent’s programs for 18 years.

Todd Burrell, who had cerebral palsy and epilepsy, was nonverbal and used a wheelchair, but those limitations never impeded him from living a rewarding life, his mother said. In his adulthood, he moved to a group home in Santa Rosa and enrolled in life skills programs though Becoming Independent.

He loved to volunteer at the Redwood Empire Food Bank and the Sonoma County Library, his mother said, and interactions with the larger community boosted his confidence. He cherished outings with the nonprofit, where he could eat with friends in the park or spend time bowling or in shopping malls.

“Being there with other people took him to a happy place,” she said.

Watching the growth of her son while he participated in Becoming Independent’s programs and volunteering her own time to further the mission has been invaluable for the 75-year-old.

“My husband and I both say (Becoming Independent) has made us better people,” she said tearfully. “It makes you filter out what’s not important and what is important. It’s been wonderful … People say Disneyland is the best place on the planet, but I say Becoming Independent is.”

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