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Bay Area Woman Heads Nonprofit To Help Disabled People Lead Independent Lives

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) -- Twice a week Oma Lee Bridges lets her creativity flow at Becoming Independent's art class. Bridges loves art and has an eye for bold colors. She's even sold a few of her artworks.

"It is really important to have a good usage of color," explained Bridges. "Because the eyes can see color."

Becoming Independent is a non-profit organization that was established over 52 years ago as a way to serve those with disabilities. Bridges is a longtime client.

"It gives people who have special needs a chance," explained Bridges. "To say when someone says you can't do that or you're not capable of something, yes I can and will."

LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service

Becoming Independent's CEO Luana Vaetoe is heartened to hear client stories like Bridges'.

"It's overwhelming," said Vaetoe. "In a way that you almost can't put words to it."

Since taking on the role of CEO in 2013, Vaetoe has expanded the nonprofit's service enterprises to include a cafe at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, concession services at a SMART train station, and a mobile document shredding truck, which was an expansion of the organization's longstanding document shredding service.

Along the way, Becoming Independent has given over 1,000 clients a year an opportunity for market wage employment and job skills.

"My best part about becoming independent is to work hard," explained one such client, Derek West.

It's what Vaetoe calls "social enterprise."

"This gives them an opportunity to engage face-to-face with other businesses, build relationships, see other opportunities and areas of interest that they might not have been aware of before," said Vaetoe.


But Vaetoe and her army of over 230 employees serve Becoming Independent clients in other ways by providing friendship, independent living assistance and social activities like art, crab feeds, and even luaus.

It is a lifetime commitment. Program participants start around age 18-22 and they never age out. Clients like West benefit from all the services Becoming Independent offers.

"The sky is the limit actually," said West with a smile.

Vaetoe agrees.

"When we see, support and include people with disabilities we all benefit from that as a community," declared Vaetoe. "To see those outcomes as a leader it's an overwhelming feeling of just gratitude and gratefulness that I  could be a part of something like this."



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