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Meet Rachel Harris of Toward Maximum Independence

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rachel Harris.

An estimated 1 in 6 people are born with a developmental disability. Just like you, they are born with hopes, dreams and the drive to contribute to society. Since 1981, Toward Maximum Independence (TMI) has transformed thousands of lives by providing assistance to children and adults living with developmental disabilities including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, giving them the ability to realize their hopes and dreams.

Headquartered in San Diego, TMI was formed in 1981 to provide independent living services as a vendor with San Diego Regional Center. In 1986, the agency became a California nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation. Over the next several years our services were expanded to include employment, supported living, family support and, in 2000, for the deaf and hard of hearing. TMI grew from a small sole-proprietorship based out of a home office, to providing support to now more than 800 people with developmental disabilities, as well as the deaf and hard of hearing, with offices in San Diego, Escondido, Temecula, El Centro and Corona.

TMI’s Executive Director, Rachel Harris, started with the agency in 2004 and became the Executive Director in 2013. Mrs. Harris has dedicated nearly 30 years to serving children and adults with developmental disabilities. She holds a B.A. in Behavior Science and a Master’s Degree in Psychological Counseling. Under the leadership of Mrs. Harris, TMI is quickly becoming one of the most innovative, cutting-edge, progressive organizations in Southern California by providing individualized services for children and adults with developmental disabilities and those in the deaf and hard of hearing community.

MISSION: To provide personalized services to those who require support, enabling them to make informed choices regarding how they live, work and function productively and independently in the community.

VISION: Achieving valued roles, making critical life-defining decisions, gaining the respect of others, and contributing to the life of the community are opportunities enjoyed by all citizens. We believe that our work is truly making a difference for people all over the world and here in our community. We hope that one day, everyone will share our passion for change. With the right attitude, and a bit of support, our dreams can and will be realized.

CORE VALUES: Respect: having a valued place and role amount a network of family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. Choice: having autonomy in decision making both in small everyday matters and large, life defining issues. Competence: having the opportunity to perform functional and meaningful activities or work with whatever level of assistance necessary. Full inclusion: sharing ordinary places with a growing network of personal relationships and making a contribution to the life of the community.

TMI is comprised of a governing Board of Directors, as well as a staff of more than 300. Currently, we hold several vendorizations through San Diego and Inland Regional Centers including Independent Living Services, Supported Living Services, Integrated Work and Family Focused Services. We also provide support to children through our Alternative Family program, which is licensed as a Foster Family Agency.

We are advocates for the belief that disability does not mean inability. Independence and self-responsibility are fostered by respect for the individual’s autonomy and by empowering the individual to make informed decisions. It is important that everyone should have the opportunity to reach their potential competence with opportunities to perform functional and meaningful activities or work with support if needed to promote success.

In spite of our name, independence is not everyone’s goal in life. Most people, even those without disabilities, rely on others for meeting a variety of their daily needs. TMI assesses a person’s need for assistance and together develop an individualized plan for support. TMI provides a dynamic work environment where deadlines are met and goals are not only met, but they are exceeded. We work on many exciting programs to improve the lives of those we support, and are very proud of the work we do.

All people we support experience full inclusion in their daily lives in all aspects of community life. We believe that the three cornerstones of a strong life foundation are; living as independently as possible, having the opportunity for real work for real pay, and providing children and young adults with caring family homes with personalized supports.

We strive for excellence and are committed to providing our clients with the highest quality of services while working strengthening our relationships and deeply engaging with all of our stakeholders and community partners.

Our Code of Ethics helps assure that all Board members, volunteers and staff act with honesty, integrity and openness in all aspects of our work. In this way, we exercise responsible stewardship by maintaining effective governance and management practices. We generate adequate resources, manage resources effectively, support and recognize our volunteers and appropriately support and compensate staff.

It is our culture that affords us a healthy working environment for all employees and volunteers. We celebrate the benefits gleaned from an organizational family that is productive and enjoys a pleasant and positive workplace.

Has it been a smooth road?
TMI faces challenges due to proposed budget cuts, and, most recently, minimum wage increases. The agency has grown overtime and is now thriving under the direction of our Executive Director, Rachel Harris.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Toward Maximum Independence (TMI) story. Tell us more about the business.
TMI is committed to a single goal; we strive to make the world a better place for children and adults with developmental disabilities and the deaf and hard of hearing. Our programs are creative and innovative and greatly contribute to transforming the lives of our clients. We have an exceptional reputation for providing outstanding services to our most vulnerable citizens. In November 2016, TMI started our CONNECT program to help our clients to SOCIALIZE, EDUCATE and ADVOCATE. The program is run by our clients with developmental disabilities and allows them to be leaders at TMI by participating and planning client social events and educational trainings. The CONNECT group meets monthly to plan events including a Spring Fling Dance, museum day, night at the movies, bowling, karaoke and much more! CONNECT is so popular with our clients, the word has gotten out in the community and we hope to expand the program to more people with developmental disabilities, not only TMI clients.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
The minimum wage increases will have a huge impact on agencies like ours. We have to be creative and look for alternate funding sources to withstand the increases in our payroll.

We also foresee, with our assistance, a greater awareness, acceptance and understanding of people with developmental disabilities, ultimately further inclusion. With social media, we are able to continually educate the public about developmental disabilities and all that our clients can do versus their limitations. More and more people with disabilities, such as autism, are contributing to the workforce. We need to continue to break down traditional barriers to reap the awards from people of all abilities.

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