Becoming Independent Opens Office in San Rafael

Becoming Independent, a nonprofit serving adults with disabilities for more than 50 years in Sonoma County, is expanding its services to Marin.

The organization is set to unveil its San Rafael campus on Dec. 5.

“This has been a multiyear effort in the making,” said the organization’s chief executive, Luana Vaetoe. “We’re ready to go.”

Becoming Independent works with adults who have a range of developmental and intellectual disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. The organization offers job training classes, helps its clients find employment and provides support for adults with disabilities living independent lives, Vaetoe said.

“When it comes to services for people with disabilities, there’s a lot of resources put into the early years, which is absolutely necessary,” Vaetoe said. “But those kids grow up, and they deserve to have a robust offering of services.”

The Marin County Office of Education provides “transitional” programs for students with disabilities after high school. Those programs include life-skills classes, job training and community college courses, according to Mary Jane Burke, the county’s superintendent of schools. But transitional programs, which are offered at no cost, are only available to students who are between the ages of 18 and 22.

Nonprofits help fill the gap for people who need additional support after they age out of those programs, Burke said.

“Our community is stronger whenever we provide more opportunities to those that, with support, can flourish,” she said.

In an effort to generate revenue and provide job opportunities for its clients, Becoming Independent runs several businesses that are staffed in part with people who have disabilities. The organization operates a cafe and a document shredding service, and it has run the concession booths on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit trains since 2017, providing dozens of jobs for adults with disabilities.

“They do a wonderful job,” said SMART’s general manager, Farhad Mansourian.

The organization runs on a $14 million annual budget, which comes from grants, state funding and private donations, according to Vaetoe. Roughly 250 staff members work for Becoming Independent in Sonoma County, and about 20 will work in Marin when the San Rafael campus opens at 777 Grand Ave.

“There’s always a need for helping people find jobs,” said Nancy Dow Moody, chief executive for Lifehouse, a San Rafael organization that provides housing and support for people with disabilities. “It’s helpful to have new resources and perspectives.”

In addition to job training, Becoming Independent offers life-skills classes, including pedestrian safety, budgeting, health and wellness, nutrition, cooking, art and self-advocacy.

“Becoming Independent believes in the innate value of every human being,” Vaetoe said. “When every one of us can exercise our right to live a life of dignity, integrity and independence to the best of our abilities, the whole community is elevated and benefits.”