Before coming to Villa Esperanza Services, Danny Chan didn’t think he could ever work, feel smart or appreciated, or make good friends.
But Chan, 40, has learned this past year that anyone, at any age, can begin a new chapter.
Since coming to Villa three years ago, the shy, soft-spoken Chan has gone from not showing up to interviews (there’s always a fear of not being accepted, of not knowing the answers), to diligently showing up at his job, working hard and smiling at others while washing dishes at the Freshwater Dumpling and Noodle House in the Huntington Library. And while he likes his paycheck, Chan especially likes knowing he’s doing a good job and people appreciate him.
He never could have done it without Villa Esperanza and its staff members, whom he counts as his close friends.
“For a long, long, long time, I never had a skill,” said Chan, who’s lived in a group home for most of his life. He paused to explain, holding back tears and apologizing “for getting emotional.”
“I never had confidence in my whole life, and Villa gave me that confidence. It’s been the best gift anyone has ever given me. Now when I face something difficult or something that’s hard I have the confidence to keep persevering, and I don’t give up,” Chan said.
Nearby, Community Integration Program supervisor Perla Moran mirrored his teary eyes: “Danny, you’re going to make me cry now!”
Emotions are something Villa has worked hard to discover and talk about with its clients, who are living with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It helps them communicate, understand themselves and the world, and relate to others. For Chan, it’s been especially meaningful, he said, pointing to his heart, “Everyone at Villa helps me a lot here, on the inside, and I really appreciate that.”
Villa Esperanza Services has been helping individuals like Chan discover themselves and more fully live their best lives since 1961, with the mission of providing, love, care and hope for those living with disabilities and for their families. By meeting the special needs of each client within a continuum of care that ranges from infancy to adulthood, the nonprofit organization has striven to expand its services over the years and advocate for children and adults to become fully integrated members of their communities.
Begun as an independent day school in Pasadena for children with Down syndrome, Villa was built on the vision of a small group of mothers, who believed their special-needs kids deserved quality care and education back when no public schools offered programs for youngsters with developmental disabilities. Villa has become a place for individuals with such disabilities to thrive, no longer secluded but visible members of the community where they work, attend school, live independently and benefit from continuing therapies and education.
Villa now serves 25 school districts and more than 41 cities in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and provides individual care to clients with any of 30 disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, and to people with dual diagnoses.
One of the nonprofit’s more recent expansions has been that of its Employment Services and Community Integration programs. Villa assists its clients in securing and maintaining paid employment in the community, an effort that includes job placement, ongoing job coaching and skills building.
Using a person-centered approach, Villa helps individuals develop in jobs that fit their wants and needs.
The program, begun in 2015, has grown from eight participants to 32, ranging in age from 19-60, and has been enormously successful and meaningful to adults like Chan, said Darryl Goodus, director of CIP and
Independent/Supported Living Services.
“It’s been a lot of fun and a very rewarding program to be a part of,” said Goodus, who seeks out potential employers based on program participants’ feedback about their “dream jobs” while also matching their skill levels with available job opportunities.
“Identifying the challenges and barriers is also a big part of what we do, while finding something fulfilling for our clients, finding out what they want to do in their lives — if they like being around people, we shoot for customer service opportunities; if they love animals, we try to find them something to do around animals — there are lots of different ways we try to get them those experiences and that exposure,” said Goodus.
The program participants have also logged experiences through volunteer opportunities within the CIP — in 2019, Villa Esperanza clients altogether logged more than 3,000 hours of service within the community, including at the Pasadena Humane Society, Cancer Support Community Pasadena, the Salvation Army, Union Station and multiple other nonprofits.
“We ask them to treat the Community Integration Program like a full-time job,” Goodus said, adding that employees get specific job training beforehand, as well on-the-job supervision from a Villa staff employee. “Our clients make excellent employees — every day is a great day for the people who are participating in our programs — they are sincere and genuine people.”
Goodus is working hard to create more employment opportunities for Villa participants, and encourages employers to keep an open mind.
“Without more work we can’t serve more clients,” he added.
Huntington Library’s vice president for advancement and external relations, Randy Shulman, said he can attest to the importance of seeing Villa employees working around the institution and through Bon Appetit, its food services partner.
“The Huntington is very pleased that Bon Appetit is employing these individuals — it fits squarely in our values and working for positive outcomes for all the people in the community and within our workforce development outreach,” Shulman said. “We’re so glad to have them as part of the Huntington’s extended family.”
Villa Esperanza Services CEO Kelly White also noted how important it is, for every individual from every walk of life, to feel productive in life and satisfied with their employment.
“Work is really meaningful to all of us — I can’t imagine having not having a job I love — and with all the partnerships we have throughout the community we are providing a really valuable service. And I think it’s good business and says a lot about the integrity of the business to hire people with disabilities. It’s a win-win for an employer,” White said. “It also gives people in the community a higher awareness that people with disabilities are very capable of gainful employment, capable of a lot of things. And our individuals want to be among their peers, they want to be with typically developing people, they want to be accepted … and they like the paycheck!”
Much of what Villa has done from the very beginning, White emphasized, is advocacy and changing “attitudinal barriers” in the community. Employment is part of increasing that awareness.
“Someone who’s never been exposed to someone with a disability oftentimes might feel fearful. … Sometimes people might not look like they have a disability, and people don’t necessarily know how to work with those different demeanors, but that’s OK, we are teaching and educating our partners and the community,” White said.
Families of participants in Villa’s programs also notice great change in the client. For Jorge Labrinos, watching his son grow and become independent over the years has been one of his greatest joys.
His son, Miguel, 38, began talking with the help of Villa’s speech therapy experts. He now also uses a tablet to communicate, works as a janitor, lives independently through Villa’s Adult Residential Program, cooks his own meals and loves to decorate his own home.
“It gives us great peace of mind to know that he’s able to function on his own and his cognitive skills are much improved,” Labrinos noted. “Villa is a very nurturing environment and very professional. They are absolutely committed to the client and will stay with them at every stage of life.”
Meanwhile, Chan will also soon be moving to Villa’s supported housing, living in his own room and apartment for the first time. He can hardly believe his good fortune, he said, taking the opportunity to thank his mentor, Moran, for helping him.
“I’m learning, I’m learning so much … I like providing a good service for everybody,” Chan said. “It motivates me and helps me do better when I see all those people around me.”
To learn more about Villa Esperanza Services or its Community Integration and Employment Services programs, visit its website at villaesperanzaservices.org.