Nonprofit Improves Lives of Those With Disabilities

After celebrating its 30th anniversary last year and being named the “nonprofit business of the year” by Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce, Reach Unlimited does not plan to rest on its laurels.

Instead, the nonprofit that improves the quality of life for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities decided to kick it up a notch.

Reach Unlimited has started a capital campaign – in order to add 35,000 square feet to its daytime care facility, the Learning Activity Center.

The space offers clients life-long learning, vocational development, employment opportunities, recreation, fitness and personal development, as well as chances to engage in community service.

The good news, the nonprofit’s executive director Kathi Schmidt explained, is that the center is filled to the brim with clients.

“The bad news is we have a waiting list,” she added.

More space is needed to expand programs and to provide services to more clients.

Phase Two of the Learning Activity Center would add a large multi-purpose room for recreational activities, a commercial kitchen and dining area, and space for administrative offices.

The project will require raising $8 million in additional funding.

Schmidt said that Reach Unlimited began in 1983, when a group of parents of young adults with disabilities joined forces.

“Their children had graduated from special ed at school,” she said. “These parents want their children to have a life. They were asking, ‘What’s next?’ ”

They learned that their options were limited.

“There weren’t many continuing programs,” Schmidt said. “They started writing grants.”

The parents then banded together to form a nonprofit.

“These families had a vision for their children to have long and productive lives,” Schmidt said. “What they wanted most was for their children to have independence.”

The parents hoped to create a safe place where their children could live and continue to learn. They opened their first group home in 1983, and a second, one year later.

Today, there are 19 group homes located from Tomball to Spring Branch.

Schmidt joined the team just a few weeks after Reach was formed. “What I thought was going to be a temporary job turned into a career filled with love and passion,” she said.

After nine years, she worked her way up from bookkeeper to executive director of the nonprofit.

One of Schmidt’s early goals was to take over the day services provided to clients from a contractual company.

“It was a process, but the board agreed to start our own program,” she said.

Reach began a capital campaign to build a day center in 2001. By 2005, the center opened at 11832 Mueller Cemetery Road – serving not only residential clients but also the population with intellectual disabilities in the greater Houston area. It was constructed with $2.2 million in donated funds.

Associate executive director Lauren Black joined Reach the same year to help manage the day program.

She had been working as a special education teacher and principal at the Carlton Center in Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District. The school provides life skills and vocational training to students with disabilities.

There, Black said she saw first hand how families struggled after their children with special needs aged out of the school system.

“Graduation is really a scary time for them,” she said. “I’ve seen families grapple with who is going to quit their job to take care of their adult children.”

Black wanted to be part of the solution.

The Learning Activity Center is part life-long learning school, part vocational training facility and part social activity place for clients of Reach Unlimited.

The curriculum includes health, life-skills, academics, art, cooking and nutrition, music, performance art, social skills, fitness, technology-based learning, independent living skills, community service and vocational training.

The center also offers “supported employment” – where clients participate in contract work.

“We seek to provide every client the opportunity to earn a paycheck while they are with us,” Black said.

Clients may be paid to sort hangers for a retail store or to create embossed napkins for special occasions.

“They pay us, and we pay our clients,” Black said. “It’s a great way to provide a service to a business, and it makes people feel good about themselves and promotes their independence.”

The center also has a fused glass studio – and the wares created by clients are sold in the gift shop.

Clients also engage in social service projects – helping with Meals on Wheels and Habitat for Humanity.

The Learning Activity Center is open 11 hours a day to accommodate the schedules of families. Clients range from 12 to 74 years old.

There is also an after-school service for children too old for daycare.

Black said the original plan for the center was broken into phases due to budgetary constraints.

Reach Unlimited also offers certified home-based services, including case management, counseling, therapy, dietary services, housing modifications and dental treatment.

The group homes continue to be in high demand across Houston – from Spring Branch and Tomball to Magnolia and Cypress.

“They’re in neighborhoods all over the place,” Black said. “We provide 24/7 care. We’ve got staff that work around the clock.”

There are usually three to nine residents in one home. Each house has a vehicle used to transport clients to the center every day.

Black said she loves her job, because she genuinely cares about her clients.

Staff members at Reach Unlimited are eager to help others understand the unique needs of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

She said that a lack of funding in the state has led to a lack of services.

“We look at it as a challenge for us to improve things,” Black said.

Schmidt said the need will only increase over time.

In the meantime, she hopes the community will join in the fundraising effort to expand the center – and stop by the facility to take a tour.

“We’re always looking for ambassadors to help us spread the word,” Black said.

 

Source: The Houston Chronicle

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