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Making it Work for People With Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities

NONPROFITS: El Cajon’s St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center Offers Job Training

Most adults with developmental disabilities are either unemployed or underemployed, despite having the ability, desire and willingness to work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that the percentage of working-age people with disabilities in the labor force is about 1/3 of that of persons who have no disability.

St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center in El Cajon is working to change that.

Since the mid-1960s, St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center has helped educate and empower thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, helping them learn skills that will help them find employment − and lead to careers in which they can excel.

Debra Emerson
St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center

The nonprofit, run since 1995 by CEO Debra Emerson, also allows the families and communities interacting with developmental and intellectual individuals to discover, explore and nurture their potential, challenging thousands of people to push forward and live full lives.

On a $10 million budget − $8 million which comes for the state and the other $2 million via fundraising − St. Madeleine Sophie’s provides a life program that allows students from high school graduates to senior citizens in their 90s to learn and grow, nurture and develop friendships, enjoy arts and athletics, and take part in social activities.

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Students attending St. Madeleine Sophie Center’s five-acre campus on East Madison Avenue in the foothills of El Cajon are able to learn and upgrade marketable skills, develop creative outlets, earn incomes and gain a sense of independence and self-esteem.


Job Opportunities

St. Madeleine Sophie’s has provided more than 500 clients with job opportunities through group jobs on its campus and in the community. Not only do the jobs bring a paycheck for the individuals, but also provide training for when they are ready to enter the Supported Employment Program and look for an independent job.

The organization has helped place more than 50 students into independent jobs through the supported employment program, which has been a recipient of the highest quality rating from the Commission on Accreditation for Rehabilitation Facilities.

Supported employment services aim to find competitive work in a community-integrated work setting for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities who need ongoing support services to learn and perform the work.

Supported employment placements can be individual or group placements, or work crews. Support typically is provided by a job coach who meets regularly with individuals on the job to help them learn the necessary skills and behaviors to be able to work independently. As the individual gains mastery of the job, the support services are gradually phased out.

All the individuals in the organization’s programs have a developmental or intellectual disability. The federal government recognizes them as low-income and eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income, so finding them a job can help get them out of this category.


Law Requires Changes

There was a time when people with developmental challenges were not part of mainstream society, sometimes kept home or sent to live away from their families, explains Emerson.

Things began to change in the U.S. when the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 became one of the first laws giving protection to people with disabilities. In 1975 Congress amended the Developmental Disabilities and Bill of Rights Act to create the Protection and Advocacy systems, which speak up for the rights of people with disabilities.

But before that happened, in 1966, the Religious of the Society of the Sacred Heart created a program in El Cajon for preschool children with developmental disabilities.  It began with one classroom and eight students.

Emerson explained that in 1975, the then-new federal law mandated that the public school system assume responsibility for training these young students. The law required changes in training for teachers of the developmentally disabled and changes in public school programs and facilities that.

Integrating children with disabilities into public schools opened a whole new world as social interactions and broader training helped these students achieve higher skill levels; it also created higher aspirations for their future and higher expectations of living full and productive adult lives.

But recognizing that the needs of preschool-age children with developmental disabilities were going to be met by the public school system, St. Madeleine Sophie’s in 1972 changed its focus and transitioned its services to meet the needs of adults with developmental disabilities.

In addition to the employment and career opportunities St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center offers, it also provides art classes at its gallery location on Main Street in downtown El Cajon. More than 400 students have taken classes at the site where they create original pieces of art and are able to earn income for the sale of their work.


Best Kept Secret in East County

For the past month, the students have been working on a project creating art on skateboards, which will be available for the public to buy this year, including the annual Alley Cat Art Walk, which is scheduled for Sept. 16 in and around the gallery.

St. Madeleine Sophie’s runs two art galleries showcasing the students’ work, viewable at https://stmsc.org/programs/specializations/sophies-gallery/ and the group’s retail shop can be visited here: https://st-madeleine-sophies-center.square.site/

St. Madeleine Sophie’s also has a Culinary Arts training program that offers Food Handler Safety and Kitchen Safety courses that qualify students to prepare and serve daily meals. The organization’s goal is to teach skills that will help students find employment opportunities in the food service industry.

“St. Madeleine Sophie’s is a wonderful place for people with disabilities,” Emerson said. “It’s like a liberal arts college. There are friendships made there, it’s a place to learn skills and it’s a busy place where people feel like they are part of a community. I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets in East County and in El Cajon.”

St. Madeleine Sophie’s Center
CEO: Debra Emerson
BUSINESS: Nonprofit
BUDGET: $10 million
WEBSITE: www.stmsc.org
CONTACT: (619) 442-5129
SOCIAL IMPACT: Organization helps those with intellectual and developmental disabilities help them realize their full potential, find skills, offer employment opportunities.
NOTABLE: Nonprofit’s main campus in foothills of El Cajon is on six acres with lush gardens and a swimming pool, satellite gallery offers art classes in downtown El Cajon.


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