Sertoma Center offers support for adults with intellectual disabilities
Eric works a full-time job keeping a loading dock clean and organized. He lives alone in the home he purchased through Habitat for Humanity. He likes to turn in early and watch the WWE in the evening. All the help he requires from the Sertoma Center is a daily check-in regarding his medications and transportation.
In another part of town, Jonathan utilizes assistance from Sertoma Center with tasks throughout the day. He loves to bowl, despite being wheelchair bound. He has an affinity for any first responder he sees, since they rescued him from an abusive situation when he was young. “He wears the biggest smile you’ve ever seen,” says Lee Freeman, Sertoma’s executive director.
Eric and Jonathan are just two of the 130 people Sertoma serves in Knox County. Some have physical disabilities. Some are nonverbal. Some have little to no family support. All have intellectual disabilities. And Sertoma serves them all, providing a positive path forward to help them thrive.
An Important Mission with an Ongoing Challenge
Sertoma Center was founded in the early 1960s as an outgrowth of the downtown Sertoma Club. The club recognized the need for education for children with intellectual disabilities, Freeman says, at a time when school systems did not serve them. When schools began mainstreaming students of all abilities and serving those with intellectual challenges until they turn 22, Sertoma redirected its focus to helping the adult population.
Of its 130 clients, about 90 live in one of Sertoma’s 32 group homes. Another 20 or so come to the center during the day for activities while family members work. Some clients receive job training and go on to work in local businesses. Some participate in social activities, like going to dinner or visiting the mall. Occasionally they take trips to the mountains or the beach.
The challenge, Freeman admits, is providing these opportunities while being exceedingly short-staffed. Ideally, the center should employ about 225 people, he says, but, at the time of this writing, there were only 160, a number that dropped as a result of Covid and never fully recovered. In addition, the compensation it can offer entry-level staffers is currently $14 an hour — woefully low for the responsibilities they undertake caring for clients. Unless they develop a heart for the work, many move on to jobs that pay as much or more and require much less commitment. Fixing that situation just might rest with the Tennessee legislature, where one of Sertoma’s greatest advocates serves as a senator.
Becky Duncan Massey worked at Sertoma Center for nearly 25 years, starting out in marketing and development and then moving into the executive director’s job. “I fell in love with our population and the difference we made in their lives. It became my passion.”
After lobbying the legislature for funding for the agency and getting acquainted with the players and the system, she ran for office. As a state senator, she shares her knowledge of social services with fellow elected officials and advocates for the vulnerable citizens Sertoma and similar agencies care for.
Raymond Lee, director of residential services, who joined Sertoma in 2005, started out as a house manager for the organization, eventually transferring to work one-on-one with a client. “I ended up with him for 11 years. It was life-changing, watching him grow and helping him through losing his dad. I knew I was in the right place,” he says. But while his heart felt satisfied, the compensation was challenging. He eventually went to Freeman and had a heart-to-heart. Freeman encouraged him to try something different with the organization as a scheduler. Eventually he landed in the director’s role. “Every day is a new challenge, especially due largely to the lack of staffing. But I look forward to every day. We have an opportunity to help another person have a better life.”
It’s that commitment that also inspires Freeman. Formerly in marketing and sales, Freeman attended one of Sertoma’s fundraising Friendship Dinners, met some clients and staff and fell in love. He also brought a personal experience to the job: his best friend from boyhood suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash and never fully recovered. When Freeman visits with clients, his friend is never far from mind.
Training, Training, Training
Training is critical to both the success of entry-level staff and the welfare of the clients they work with. New hires complete 23 online courses that ready them for the work, followed by 40 hours of job-shadowing with veteran staffers. Finally, they complete training specific to the individuals they’ll be working with.
“We are in charge of their lives every day,” Raymond Lee says of their clients. “We take care of medications. If someone is not vocal, we’re their lifeline, we’re their voice. It’s important to make sure all the staff is properly trained to be their advocates.”
In addition to training its staff, Sertoma provides its clients with job training. Project Search is one such training program. It’s a collaboration between Sertoma, Knox County Schools, and local businesses. The partnership with East Tennessee Children’s Hospital is for clients age 18 and older who aren’t enrolled in the school district. Clients become interns at the hospital from February to October. The partnership with Park West Medical Center works with Knox County Schools students ages 18-22 with intellectual disabilities, operating throughout the school year. Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center joined the Project Search effort this fall.
During the internships, they receive training and experience in the workplace, in departments that include food service, central supply, environmental services, nursing units, and surgery. They help prepare meals, deliver food trays, answer phones, clean operating rooms, and distribute supplies. Additionally, on-site instructors teach them about team building, workplace safety, technology, financial literacy, interviewing skills and much more.
“The most exciting thing about Project Search is that [Park West] has been able to hire some of the participants for full-time work,” says Scott Hamilton, Park West CFO and Sertoma board member. “They have been great hires; they know their jobs, they’re very reliable, and the staff loves them. It’s cool to see.”
The Challenge of Funding
In the 2021-22 fiscal year, the center operated with a $12.2 million budget. Ninety-five percent came from state and federal funds, Freeman says. The remainder came from donors and private support. Earlier this year, State Senator Massey sponsored a bill that she hopes will eventually increase those funds. The legislation created a health care task force to look into what similar agencies in other states pay their staff, what companies who are competing for the same pool of workers are paying, and what Tennessee pays similar workers in other industries. After gathering the data, she hopes to go to the governor and the commissioner of finance with a proposal for a higher reimbursement rate for agencies like Sertoma.
“I hope the deep dive may help us come to a long-term, realistic solution for the increases that are needed,” she said. “Lots of things need funding at the state level, and you can’t fund everything. You do what you can where you can. I’m hopeful this wage study will make the best argument for increases that are needed.”
It should come as no surprise that the wheels of progress turn slowly. Massey says that results from the study aren’t due back until December of 2023.
In the meantime, Sertoma will continue its work to support its clients, just as it always has. “We’re always looking for ways to expand the number of people we’re able to serve, whether that’s through strategic partnerships or other means,” says Hamilton, who will serve as the incoming board president in 2023. “We’re always there as a resource, and as with any nonprofit board, we’re always interested in raising money and hosting events to do that.”
To learn more about Sertoma’s work—or to find ways to get further involved—visit www.sertoma.com.