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OADS adjusts to budget cuts, new demographic

Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 10:42 a.m.

(Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series on how Petaluma nonprofits are finding creative ways to survive despite an uncertain economy and reduced public funding.)

On a recent Friday afternoon, the rooms and hallways of Old Adobe Developmental Services, located on Rand Street just off North McDowell Boulevard, were bustling, despite the organization's budget being cut by almost a quarter in recent years.

Staying busy — through expanding is program offerings and creating new partnerships like an art entrepreneurship program with local artists — appears to be part of the survival strategy for OADS, which provides training, jobs and other services to more than 170 people with disabilities in the Petaluma area.

Like many local nonprofits, the organization has undergone huge financial cutbacks in the last five years. Those include unprecedented state cuts — about $250,000 last year alone. That was a significant hit to the organization, which runs on about $2.9 million a year. In addition, Petaluma City Schools began cutting Adult Education teacher and aide positions in 2009, resulting in an annual loss of $620,000, Executive Director Elizabeth Clary says. All told, OADS has lost more than $800,000 in funding annually since 2008.

Next year's budget looks to be about the same or worse, says Clary. “It's kind of a perfect storm,” of financial challenges, she says.

In addition to budget cuts, the organization is also facing the challenge of meeting the needs of a rapidly changing population as a wave of youth with autism or a related disability are enrolling at OADS with a very different set of needs from previous clients. About 50 percent of people joining OADS now have autism or a related condition, according to Clary.

The result is that the organization now finds itself using a 40-year-old system to deal with an increasingly younger group of people, a challenge that is forcing OADS to make big changes for the first time in decades, says Clary: “We're having to totally redesign our structure to meet new needs.”

To do this despite the funding challenges, OADS is seeking additional financial support from the Petaluma community. The organization is also looking to expand its services to new, underserved groups like young adults with autism, for instance, in an effort to gain more efficiencies with its current staff and avoid laying off about 60 people.

On a recent Friday, a cohort of some of OADS' youngest participants were laughing and joking together, having just finished cleaning and wrapping about 200 rolls of silverware for a local restaurant.

Clary explains that many of them have grown up together, attending and graduating from local Petaluma schools. “People coming into our system now have gone through the local school system, been educated with the mainstream, and their goals really resemble the goals of other graduates,” she says, adding that those goals include being independent and having a rewarding job. “They've been raised with higher expectations, which is wonderful.”

To help individuals meet those goals and expectations, OADS is altering its job training programs to focus more on mentoring and teaching skills that can be transferred to different jobs.

“A person's first job after graduating might be wrapping silverware,” Clary said, “But we don't want someone to be doing that forever.” The idea is that, with careful instruction, individuals will learn skills like work stamina that can apply to future jobs.

OADS is also expanding its popular art program. One of its students, Maite Echevarria, recently displayed her artwork in the Petaluma Arts Center's annual members exhibition. Echevarria, who describes herself as “a great artist” whose favorite painter is Michelangelo, might be one of the first OADS participants to join a new venture that the organization is developing with local artists.

The idea is to create a sort of “micro-enterprise” for students, where they can team up with working Petaluma artists. OADS staff is currently talking with local artists who specialize in crafts that OADS participants also specialize in. In the next few months, those artists will begin mentoring and assisting the OADS students in starting up a small business where they can display and sell their work, allowing the students to be more independent.

That will involve physically expanding the OADS building in 2013, making room for studios for individual artists and a gallery. Clary hopes this will be done by the summer.

Clary spoke excitedly about the program, expected to get underway in 2013, describing art as “a great outreach tool” for the organization.

To learn more about OADS, visit www.oadsinc.org.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus courier.com)

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