Written by The Business Journal Staff
Kelly Cunningham, Adult Program Director
UCP of Central California
What we do: In the adult program, we promote inclusion, access, independence and opportunities for community engagement and life-changing programs for adults with developmental disabilities. This includes adults with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, traumatic brain injury and other special needs.
Education: B.S., kinesiology
Family: Wife Marcy, children: Sam, Jeremiah, Kelsey and Logan
How did you get involved with United Cerebral Palsy, Kelly?
Life has a way of leading you to the place you are meant to be. After I completed my student teaching after college, I decided that public education was not the route I wanted to follow. So, I started with UCP as a Home Adaptive Exercise Technician. That was over 20 years ago.
The Central Valley group has been around for decades but there still seem to be some misconceptions about the work you do. How have you tried to better inform the public over the years, Kelly?
Our name is a bit of a misnomer. While we do serve adults with cerebral palsy, we also serve adults with a broad spectrum of disabilities including autism, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury and other special needs. Then there is our children’s program in the South Valley. One of the best ways we have found to help inform the public is to be out in the public. The adults we serve are a segment of the population that is often grossly under-served by engaging and stimulating programs. We decided to change that reality. Our students are in the community because they are an integral part of our community. We love to meet new people, expose our students to new organizations, and we love to give people tours.
What are some of the programs you offer throughout the region, Kelly?
We have three programs that run out of our center at Cedar and Ashlan. We have our Center for the Arts & Technology, which offers center-based classes in visual and performing arts, life skill classes like cooking and baking and an adaptive technology program that has opened up so many doors for our students to build community and learn. We also have our Arts & Agriculture in the Community program. In this program, our students are fully integrated in the community. We have a community garden where students are able to experience the importance of our ag production in the Valley. We have art space at Sorenson Gallery where students work on art alongside typical artists. We found that adults with disabilities show measurable progress and learn with greater retention when they utilize all their senses. We also have our Home Adaptive Exercise Program, which provides educational, developmental, and therapeutic support for adults both in our day program and adults who are unable to attend a day program. Our last adult program is our CHEERS program in Coalinga. This program focuses on the arts, agriculture, math, science, and physical education. And those are just the adult programs!
How would you like to see more people take advantage/participate in UCP services, Kelly?
I’d love to expand our program and provide more opportunities for our students to engage in the community. I’d love to see more public partners open their doors for our Arts & Ag students. Our students have picked grapes at a vineyard and then laid them out to dry to make raisins. They have volunteered their time to help with food banks and clothing closets. They have toured production facilities where their wheelchairs are made. We have these amazing businesses in our community — I would love to see our students afforded the opportunity for more quality interactions. I’d also invite anyone reading this to come down for a tour. Meet our students and our staff. Let’s see if there is a way where you can share your talent and let our students share theirs with you.
Where do you see the greatest need?
Every year we have students who need our programs but we don’t have the space and they are put on a waiting list. Every year we see a greater need for our programs. Our greatest need at the moment is space for each of those students on our waiting list. We need space to grow.
UCP’s Fresno center celebrated the end of its mortgage payments with a burning ceremony last spring, why was that event so important?
It means that after 25 years, our building is free and clear and holds with it the inspiration to launch us into our next year of service!
Funding seems to be another top issue for UCP in the Central Valley. Why are private donations so important?
More than $1 billion has been cut from the state budget since the Great Recession for programs for people with developmental disabilities. Additionally, over the past 14 years our fee-for-service has not seen an increase, yet costs to our program have continued to increase. Programs all over the state have been forced to lower standards, slash programs or shut their doors. But we are still here because of our donors. They are the ones who stand with us and join our vision of a world where disability is neither defining nor limiting. We continue to provide innovative programs that empower our adults to reach their full developmental potential because of the continued support of the community. Without our current donors and more people like them willing to join us, we would not be able to provide those programs I mentioned above. Private donations are so very important and needed.
What professional goals would you still like to accomplish, Kelly?
For me it is about growing our programs. I want to be able to continue to provide a spot for every single person in the Valley whose lives would benefit from being in our programs.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it, Kelly?
Working as a carhop for A&W. I learned an important life lesson: I was not good at roller-skating.
Who has been a mentor for you and what did you learn from him/her?
My Executive Director Jeffrey Snyder has taught me how to encourage staff and how to treat people with dignity and respect. He taught me that people would rise to the expectations you put in front of them. He also gave me lots of great one-liners. But I will save those for those of you reading this who would like a tour.
What do you like to do in your spare time, Kelly?
I coach baseball and soccer and volunteer in all my kids’ activities. They are an active bunch.