How the Pomeroy Center Empowers San Franciscans With Disabilities

Jeff Winkel, Senior Managing Director, First Republic Bank
August 10, 2018

For more than 65 years, the Pomeroy Recreation & Rehabilitation Center in San Francisco has designed and implemented an array of programs and partnerships to serve those living with disabilities, as well as their families and the community at-large. The center’s focus is on continuing education, social integration and workplace training initiatives — programs that exist to broaden the horizons and revolutionize the lives of participants.

After a tour of the center’s lush gardens (with its resident chickens), swimming pool and vast network of classrooms and facilities, Pomeroy CEO David Dubinsky spoke with us at length about the need for this type of community; what it’s like to simultaneously meet the needs of an extremely diverse pool of participants, from kindergartners to senior citizens; and why his “ultimate vision” for the center is “not having to exist,” period.

Let’s begin with Pomeroy’s continuing education program, OneCenter. What is it?

Instead of a place where people who belong to different classifications spend all day with their own group — seniors only with seniors, for example, or people who have the most severe disabilities only with others with similarly severe disabilities — our classrooms are open to everyone. That’s why we call it the OneCenter, because all adults are together.

There are as many as 40 different classes happening Monday through Friday, ranging from health and wellness to computer education to our art and music activities, which are really popular. We even have a dance class that’s run by a freelance ballet dancer in San Francisco.

We run it like a community college. People get complete control over how they spend their day. This is about their freedom, and we treat everyone as customers who deserve incredible service.

What is the “Work Ready” training program?

As part of this program, our staff goes through the more than 200 adults here to find 20 or 30 who really want to work. Then we teach the skills that are important to most employers, such as how to communicate and to respect personal space.

Participants often start out working at Helpers Bazaar, a gift shop located in Ghirardelli Square, so they can gain experience with public interaction. Some transition to outside positions. We have opportunities with different organizations, including Petco, Trader Joe’s and St Anthony’s. One participant took care of our swimming pool’s locker room, and now she’s working for La Petite Baleen, a local swimming school. They love her because she’s perfect for the position and had relevant experience, and we were thrilled to be able to provide that for her.

All of your programs have grown in recent years. How?

Making use of what we have and counting on our neighbors has been so important to our growth. I’ve worked in the nonprofit community for over 30 years, so I know the power of collaboration. For example, we’re located close to the San Francisco Zoo; as the result of a First Republic nonprofit event, we formed a partnership with them and are able to use their facility as a living classroom.

Our staff takes participants on walks in our garden and along the coast. It doesn’t cost anything. We make the most of what we have around us.

Your staff also finds ways for participants to give back to the community. How has that become an important part of your work?

We do! For example, we partner with the SF-Marin Food Bank. Those who want to participate sort supplies and fill bags with groceries. Then we load up the van and distribute the food to people with little means. Not all of our participants can work, but they’re able to walk up a flight of stairs or ride in an elevator, knock on a door and hand someone groceries. We do the same for Meals on Wheels, where we deliver hot food to people who can’t leave their homes.

For participants, helping others is gratifying — and the people they’re helping are always so excited to see them. I don’t think anything would stop them from delivering meals now, because they know they’re wanted and needed.

How else does Pomeroy bridge the broader community?

It often begins with our pool. Everyone is welcome. There are swimming classes for older kids up to 12 years old. People bring their infants because it’s warm salt water. It’s amazing to watch; they’re just laughing because it’s like being in a big tub with a bunch of other babies.

But it’s also a place where they will see people in wheelchairs and those with very different abilities. Everyone is connected. Adults might get their knee replaced or develop arthritis, so they get a doctor’s note to come. Next thing you know, they’re volunteering! For example, we have a judge — Marilyn Teeter — who swam here. She started helping our older participants swim, and now she’s on staff.

There are so many other ways we connect with the broader community, too, through our robust volunteer program, our “Pomeroy Live” concert series and our display and sale of brilliant participant artwork at places like Noe Valley Bakery or the Heart of the City Farmers Market.

How do young people fit in Pomeroy?

Right now we run an after-school program for children, from kindergarten to high school students. It’s really the only one in the city for youth with special needs who are in public school. We also have a summer camp for children, teenagers and even young adults, where they can have fun and be adventurous, artistic or athletic. We’re trying to prepare these young people for a future in which they don’t have to come here as adults.

This year we’re going to be expanding the program to include a transitional class, though, for older kids who will shift into our adult program.

What about the trends you’re seeing? Is there an emerging need?

The number of young people with autism is growing exponentially. The rest of the population doesn’t really understand the unique challenges faced by individuals on the autism spectrum. So they’re missing out on the intelligence and talents of this population and that’s a travesty.

Most people with autism struggle, so we have occupational and physical therapists work with them in an effort to bring out their talents. Everyone has something to offer.

Looking to the future, what goals and challenges are in store for Pomeroy?

We will be helping more people who live on the street by working with the city’s Navigation Centers, which are run by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. I often tell city supervisors and lawmakers that our center keeps about 500 adults from becoming homeless in our community, so when it comes to funding, don’t forget about programs like ours.

Our next venture is to open a daycare center for kids ages two-and-a-half to five. We’re planning that half of the children we’ll serve through that initiative will be able-bodied, and the rest will have special needs. Kids this young don’t recognize disabilities. Differences, yes, but they find creative ways to include everybody. When the non-disabled kids leave the program, they’ll know how to play with everyone — and kids with disabilities won’t be suddenly thrust into an unknown world.

The future of this organization is to integrate our adult and children program participants with the community, so they are empowered to learn and grow and contribute; not having to exist is our ultimate vision.


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