Patricia Yeager says every job she’s had, including running independent living centers in Denver and an industry association in California, propelled her to becoming CEO of The Independence Center, a nonprofit in downtown Colorado Springs that assists and advocates for people with disabilities.
Yeager oversees a $10 million budget, up 30 percent from when she took over the center in 2011. The center employs more than 300 people, many of them part-timers, with about 225 providing home health care to clients in 14 counties. Medicaid pays for about 90 percent of the Independence Center’s budget, which covers about 800 people a year that come in for peer support, advocacy and to learn independent living skills from its 80 employees, most of whom also have disabilities.
When Yeager was 2, her hearing was damaged by a reaction to medication. She didn’t get a hearing aid until age 5, or a second one until she was 27. That didn’t stop her from getting a bachelor’s degree in education from Marshall University, a master’s in rehabilitation counseling from West Virginia University and a doctorate in human rehabilitation from Northern Colorado University.
What did you learn from your hearing loss?
That it doesn’t stop you. It was life-changing for me as a kid because I was trying to deny it, block it out, hide it. My mother tried to hide it. I never saw anyone my age wearing hearing aids when I was young. Once I stepped out, and it was probably when I was about 30 years old, I started cutting my hair and showing my hearing aids, and it was very freeing. It was much easier.
How has that experience helped you run The Independence Center?
I understand that helplessness feeling. I understand not wanting to deal with it, and I understand what happens when you do accept it. You integrate it into your self-image. I say this a lot: ‘If you’re mourning who you were, you can’t step into who you are.’ I spent probably the first 25 years of my life doing that. It gives me empathy for people, and it also helps me to convey to them that they can get through this. My hearing disability isn’t nearly as difficult as being in a wheelchair or being blind, but I’m here to tell people that they can get through this.
What should people know about The Independence Center?
We’re here to help the community, to really embrace people with disabilities of all ages. Some of our work may not feel like that when we have to advocate, and bark, but it’s done out of love and wanting to see inclusion. What’s thrilling to me is to see someone who’s been afraid to engage and thinks they’re not worth it, but then step up at a city council meeting and say, ‘This is what I think,’ and have city council vote that way. All of a sudden they think, ‘Wow, I count.’ It’s that whole thing of being accepted by someone else, and being respected.
Is there a new project you’ve been working on?
Memorial [Hospital] has agreed to work with us on a pilot project working with their ‘complex’ patients who are having trouble transitioning out of the hospital. The pilot will start in January 2018 and we intend to show that transitioning people with disabilities back to their own home with medical and social supports fosters better outcomes for the patient and allows the hospital to turn over that bed so that others can be served. The IC has put together a Disability Transition Services Network to include a Medicare agency, a pharmacy, medical transport and food as well as durable medical equipment. We will provide the Medicaid and the community engagement piece. We hope to disrupt the nursing home pipeline from the hospital for people with disabilities who sometimes never get out of that nursing home.
Has anything else changed at The Independence Center?
We have a certified nursing assistant school, which is unusual. There’s a shortage of CNAs and we decided we would buy what was called the Front Range CNA School and run it, and then have first crack at people coming out of the program for our home health care. The owners were ready to retire and we bought everything: the curriculum, the mannequins, the beds, the lease.
What leadership lessons would you offer to others?
There’s a book called “Servant Leadership,” and it’s all about putting others first and helping develop them. My father was a grocery man, and one day he was talking to one of the stock boys and asking him questions. I asked my father, ‘Why don’t you just tell him what to do?’ He said people don’t respond to that; people respond to being a part of things and to being respected and being asked their opinion. That is so true. I hire people who are smarter than me and play to my weaknesses, and then I help them get set up and get out of their way. I’m there to support them. People make mistakes, so expect that, but the key is how do they fix it.