Retiring but not Saying Goodbye
By Dottie Adams, GCDD's Individual and Family Supports Director
My career started out by chance some might say. I lived in the small town of Fitzgerald in South Georgia. I was involved in many civic activities including being a Girl Scout leader and a member of the Fitzgerald Junior Woman’s Club. In March of 1977, I was approached by Philip Jay, who ran the Ben Hill County Training Center, an old school building on the outskirts of town where young children, school-aged youth and adults were all grouped together. There were two staff members out on maternity leave and he needed someone to help out temporarily and asked if I would be interested. I didn’t have any experience with people with disabilities, but I was up for the challenge and was assigned a classroom of six school-aged youth.
The PL-94-142, which gave children with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education, had been passed in 1975, but the implementation had not filtered to the local level in Georgia yet. I had lots of previous experience with youth through scouting and teaching horseback riding at a summer camp, so I treated these young people as I would any other kids and that seemed to serve us all well. I didn’t have a guidebook or manual to go by. In those days there weren’t very many rules, so we spent our time doing things that made sense. Although I moved away from Fitzgerald six months later, I saw a lot of progress in the kids as they gained confidence in their own abilities and I knew I had found a passion I didn’t know I had inside me.
I moved to North Georgia and was hired to work at the Barrow County Mental Health Center to support people who were moving back into the community from state institutions. The staff was young and enthusiastic. We may not have had all of the technical skills at the time, but we were willing to do whatever it took to make things work. I still remember the first person I helped get out of an institution. He was a man who had autism and moved home to live with his mother. The neighbors were not very welcoming and even held neighborhood meetings on the sidewalk questioning why he was allowed to live there. They would say things like, “He goes out on the porch and smokes cigarettes” and “He walks to the store to take back Coke bottles.” I remember calling John O’Brien, who has been one of my mentors throughout my entire career, and he advised me to find a way to give this young man a valued role so his neighbors might view him differently. We made sure that if there was a need for someone strong to help out to move branches after a storm or to move the trash can to the street, he might offer to help. It was great advice and a strategy that I often still use.
I spent seven years working at the Mental Health Center and then transferred to the district office that served the 10-county area around Athens. For the next 18 years, I coordinated the Intake and Evaluation (I & E) Team.
My philosophy was that we were there to help people get the supports and services they needed. It was our job to make life easier on people, not more difficult. Some of the supports we used were formal services, but others were natural supports in the community.
For example, if a mom called and asked who she could get to cut her overly active child’s hair and we didn’t know, we would ask around to other moms or recruit a hairdresser we knew would be willing to try. If a service didn’t exist, then we helped develop it and brought in consultants who could help with challenging behaviors or physical concerns.
We introduced people to new technologies such as communication systems and adaptive equipment that was on the market. We were driven by the needs of the people, not by a set of rules. Other I & E teams would wait for the State office to tell them what they should do. Not us. We learned that following the lead of the people in your community was the best approach.
As a result, we were pioneers because we were willing to be creative. We piloted family support in 1985 as a way to prevent the need for out-of-home placement. We started the Early Intervention Services for babies from birth to three in 1989. We collaborated with families to learn more on supported living and then implemented it through the founding of Georgia Options in 1992.
We were a part of the Marc Gold Project, which promoted supported employment opportunities in the 1990s. It was a fun time to work in the system. The people who we were supporting were our teachers and taught us what to pay attention to and kept us grounded.
When the I & E teams were moved to the regional offices, I felt that a change might be in order. I had previously worked with the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) on some family support activities, so when the family support coordinator position was open, I applied for the job. I went to work for GCDD in 2002, and it was a good match because there was room for innovation and creativity. The past 10 years here have flown by. I have enjoyed being able to work statewide with many great individuals and families. I have contacts across the State and feel honored to have built these relationships over the years. Family support is such an important concept, not just for families with disabilities but for ALL families.
Working with youth to plan for their future and envision their dreams is so rewarding. Seeing someone have an “aha” moment where they see possibilities to expand is the BEST! Watching a student intern at one of our Project SEARCH sites, a business-led transition program for youth offering career exploration to students with disabilities, go from being a shy, unsure person to becoming a competent, confident employee with a tremendous work ethic is extraordinary. Spending time with families from diverse cultures and helping them see new opportunities they had never even imagined is very engaging. And, seeing the pride someone feels in himself and his hard work is amazing.
In 2008 and 2009, I had two bouts with cancer. It is a life-changing event that makes you re-prioritize your life. At my last appointment with my oncologist, I told him I was retiring at the end of July. He started shaking his head. He knows me well. He said, “You can’t retire.” I told him I knew that and I planned to return later and work half time. It is hard to retire from who you are. This work is not a job. It’s who I am and who I was meant to be. Don’t get all worked up thinking I’m out of here. No way! As Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “I’ll be back.”
- Dottie Adams
Over her career, Dottie has formed both professional and personal lifelong relationships with many of her colleagues. The following comments are just a few of the many people Dottie has impacted over the past 35 years.
Joy Eason Hopkins
I have known Dottie since about 1984 and I have come to learn that there is only one Dottie and no one can fill her shoes. I have been lucky enough to develop both a professional and personal relationship with her over the years, including the birth of my child and her godson, who is now 18.
Dottie has always had an admiration and appreciation for people who work in direct support roles and worked to create learning opportunities for them. This is an interest and commitment we both share, and it has helped join us to work on numerous projects including statewide conferences, individual futures planning sessions, core gifts workshops, storytelling events and a direct support professional statewide project initiated by the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities in 2003.
Even though Dottie is one of the busiest people I know, her commitment to families is one of her greatest attributes. Regardless of what else is on her plate, she will be there if needed to support or assist a family. She truly believes that when people with disabilities are not participating in their community, it’s the community that’s “missing out.”
There probably isn’t a single provider organization in the State that hasn’t been impacted by her work, or at least knows her name. Although Dottie makes her opinions and visions for people with disabilities clear wherever she is or whatever she is involved in, providers are not offended by her views and often even solicit her advice and assistance.
Dottie has helped numerous families realize a future they probably would not have without her participation and is valued and appreciated by people all over the country. Her work, advocacy and dedication in the disability community will be truly missed.
I first met Dottie over 20 years ago when I moved to Athens and we both worked at Northeast Georgia Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services. She worked on the Intake and Evaluation interdisciplinary team and I served as director of several service centers. Since both of us worked with people who needed supports and person-centered planning, our work crossed in many ways.
In reality, Dottie was a pioneer for personcentered and family support planning. She worked closely with staff to train, teach and make us truly understand what person-centered support meant and how it could change lives.
Dottie is extremely intuitive in supporting people to live their dreams and have meaningful lives in the community. She listens with her heart when people express their desires, and she is tireless in reaching out to the community and finding opportunities for individuals to realize their dreams.
Later on I became the director of Developmental Disabilities Services at Advantage Behavioral Health Systems and Dottie moved from Athens to work for GCDD, but we kept in touch. For seven years in a row, Dottie came to present on person-centered planning to the students in the Direct Support Professional Certificate Program classes Sally Carter and I taught at Athens Tech. Each year my students rave about her presentation and say she brings clarity to the subject.
Dottie has been a great role model and mentor to me. I’ve learned to listen to people and what they are communicating and how important it is to build relationships and opportunities in the community. She is a dear friend and inspires me both professionally and personally.
She gives her time to everyone and goes above and beyond to help individuals achieve their goals and maintain her relationships outside of a professional setting. Her dedication amazes me. She will work all day and then stay up late at night making quilts to raise money for the American Cancer Society and a team she organizes and supports for her own doctor’s relay for life team.
Dottie is an inspiration and has touched so many people’s lives. She will be missed, but I know she is the type of person who always gives her gifts and will be back to help whenever she is needed.
I met Dottie about 24 years ago when I was new in Georgia. While trying to decide whether to move here with our 21-year-old son, who needed extensive services and supports, I was given her name as someone who knew the disability community.
At the time, there was only one provider of residential services for people with disabilities in Athens, and they would not take our son, whom they described as “too disabled.” Although Dottie couldn’t help us get services, she tolerated my numerous phone calls and connected me with other parents who were equally desperate for services.
Dottie invited me to the seminar where I first learned about supported living. Soon I began to attend more seminars, conferences and workshops, until I found myself on a path of becoming a “professional parent” determined to make a meaningful life possible for not only my son, but other people’s children as well. I call Dottie one of my first teachers on this path to new ways of thinking about our son’s life and we soon began to work more closely together.
Dottie was instrumental in the founding of Georgia Options. Since the 70s, Dottie tried to advocate for person-centered services in a system that was not necessarily geared up for it. Through Dottie’s example and the many conversations we had, I began to envision a transformed life for our son. She told me that once you get the “aha” moment, you can never go back to old ways of thinking about services. And she was right.
So how do I describe Dottie? Hardworking up to and past the deadline. She once told me “We can work miracles in 24 hours.” She is knowledgeable, especially about personal futures planning, totally committed to people with disabilities and their families, endlessly patient, loyal to her friends, fearless in doing what is right for people and always optimistic in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Surely, she will be missed. Just as surely, she deserves some rest. Well done, Dottie.