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Q&A with Teresa Garate, president & CEO of the Anixter Center

Teresa Garate considers herself a “fixer” when it comes to her professional career. She has worked to implement organizational reforms while working at Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Specialized Services, the Illinois Department of Public Health and in her current role as the president & CEO of Anixter Center.

Garate stepped into her current role at the Anixter Center in June 2015. The center is one of Chicago’s largest nonprofit organizations, serving nearly 8,000 children, teens and adults with disabilities. With a broad background in education, disability, and social services, Garate joined the organization ready to implement change.

“I think my skillset is that I’ve learned how to use data to inform change and come up with best practices,” Garate told the Daily Whale in a recent interview.

Born in South Florida and raised in Peru for the first seven years of her life, Garate moved to Chicago to attend Loyola University. She continued her studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where she eventually received her Ph.D. in special education.

Garate first felt inspired to advocate for disabled individuals while an undergrad at Loyola. “I became very passionate about this population and about teaching when I took a class at Loyola that was an elective,” Garate told the Daily Whale. “I was almost ready to graduate with my Bachelor’s Degree in psychology and the elective was all about disability and special education and that teacher taught me about the power of teaching. I became passionate about making sure that people with disabilities weren’t segregated just because of their disability.” 

Garate’s current employer, the Anixter Center, serves individuals with developmental, physical, cognitive or sensory disabilities. The organization provides an array of services including education, employment, housing, health and community support. Garate hopes her work will help create a society where people with disabilities are viewed as equals.

“People with disabilities are sometimes viewed as a drain on society, but they’re not. They’re members of our community.”

The Daily Whale sat down with Garate recently to talk about her work with the Anixter Center. An edited transcription follows.

DW: Give me a little background on your life.

TG: I grew up in south Florida and South America. I was born in Miami and spent the first seven years of my life in Peru. I learned Spanish as my first language. I moved to Chicago when I was 19 to go to school, and Chicago has been my home ever since. I was the only daughter of two undocumented parents when they came to the states. They became citizens much later in life. They came here in the ‘60s ... – didn’t speak any English, very little. My foundations are very modest, but early on I understood the importance of social justice.

DW: What did you do before coming to Anixter Center?

TG: I have a PhD research background. I worked in public health and worked in the disability community. I’m sort of the person that comes in to fix things. I was a bilingual special education teacher almost 30 years ago in Humboldt Park and then I went to UIC and really focused on my research and ran a center called the Advocacy & Empowerment for Minorities Program. I worked in Pilsen and Little Village empowering people with disabilities to be advocates and then went to CPS as the chief of staff for the Office of Specialized Services and that was very messy. I was there for about six years when Arne [Duncan] was there. From there I went to the Dept. of Public Health at the state – also very messy – trying to put some practices in place to protect the agency, to make it accountable and transparent. Then I left there for a nonprofit.

DW: What’s the Anixter Center’s mission?

TG: We are one of the largest and one of the oldest nonprofits in the Chicagoland area. We are 98-years-old and we were started as an orphanage. In the ‘50s it became a disability-oriented organization. … In the ‘80s it started expanding into residential care. Now we touch about 8,000 lives a year – that is both through our residential program, our school, and also the medical services we provide.

We’re very large and very diversified in our programs. We’re almost like a holding company. We are the main center, but we have different divisions and a number of departments. … We do everything from mental health treatment to serving people with developmental disabilities to serving children from birth to 12-years-old. … It’s a nonprofit social service agency focused on people with disabilities.

DW: In what way has the Anixter Center been affected by the state budget crisis?

TG: I think because we are so diversified the state budget has impacted us, but maybe not as much as some of the other agencies. Only 50 percent of our budget comes from the state. The rest is a mix of federal, fee for service, private pay and MCO (Managed Care Organization) funding. So 50 percent of the budget has been a very significantly impacted in FY16 mostly from the non-Medicaid portions. Medicaid dollars were being paid out because of all the consent decrees and all the lawsuits. …

I think, for us, the biggest issue from the state – obviously funding is an issue – but also the archaic rules and regulations that provide oversight for the services we provide. They tend to put the people that we serve into categories. Depending which category you sit in, this is the service we can provide you with. … I think the clients are the ones that are mostly negatively impacted by the way that our state is structured when it comes to social service, human service and disability services and how those services are funded and regulated.

DW: Do you think we’ll see changes to that regulatory structure in the future?

TG: I think the trend will change positively because there are a lot of federal mandates that are trickling down to the states like the Federal Home and Community based waiver, the new rules for the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice around shelter workshops. I’m very involved in sitting on a number of task forces at the state level on re-writing rules and regulations. However, if those changes that were in place stop for whatever reason, then I think we’ll be holding at the status quo.

DW: What are some of the challenges Anixter Center faces?

TG: I think the limited understanding of people with disabilities as a society – a fear of what it means to employ someone with a disability, [and] the limited housing opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. If you’re a person with [developmental disabilities,] you don’t have access to permanent supportive housing vouchers. But if you’re a person with mental illness, you have access to permanent supportive housing vouchers. … We all know that it’s cheaper to provide residential services within the community, but Illinois is still a very institutionalized state – both private and public institutions.

There was some movement in terms of closing some of the state-operated facilities, but the needle has moved very slowly. We get calls every week about people needing housing. That’s the number one call that we get. From that, they also need case management, mental health services, etc. But housing continues to be a big issue.

DW: Tell me about the housing options Anixter Center provides.

TG: We have housing. We don’t have a lot of vacancies, but we do have some and we’re able to at least triage and refer people. We have housing for people with mental illness – we have two buildings with some vacancies there. We’re also landlords to 7 project-based HUD buildings. … Then we also have CILA Housing (Community Integrated Living Arrangement), which is a traditional group home and that is a different way to come in.

All of those types of housing have different entry points. If we don’t have anything available, we have a client services manager who then refers them out to other partners that may have housing opportunities.

DW: What were some of your main focuses when you were brought on as the new president and CEO of Anixter Center?

TG: I came into the agency after five years of pretty significant losses every year. We have a healthy balance sheet because we own a lot of property. That’s good. But operationally we’ve lost money every year since 2012. When I came in, I think the board was hungry and looking for someone who understood programming. I’m lucky that I’m the administrative leader who also understands the rules, regulations, funding and the programming of what we do. But they also wanted someone to convert us from a nonprofit organization to a nonprofit business. …

What we’re providing is a service that we can sell. One of the ways I proposed to achieve that was to liquidate some of our real estate assets because the gap is just too big. … So we are selling [Anixter’s office building on N. Clybourn Ave.] in order to gain more capital to expand programs we think have a growth opportunity – which are mental health, mainly, and substance abuse treatment.

DW: Does Anixter Center partner with other organizations?

TG: I believe in partnerships. I believe in collaboration. We have a partnership with the Illinois Facilities Fund. They received money from the state and IDA a few years ago to expand housing in northern Cook County. They’re going to purchase, renovate and acquire housing, and we’re going to be the service provider and bring people there. That’s a great partnership.

We have a partnership by me sitting on the board of the Kennedy Center Forum with the mental health community. I sit on the Illinois Community College Board and the Board for Higher Education. I sit on the Board of Health and Disability Advocates to have a partner around Medicaid advocacy. I sit on the Employment First task force to talk about how … we [can] change the way the division of rehab services makes people eligible and how we can expand competitive support for people with disabilities. … I’m still exploring public-private partnerships.

DW: Are the services Anixter Center provides mainly in Chicago?

TG: We have one home in Zion, which is in Lake County. We’re expanding to the West suburbs. One of our divisions, the National Lekotek Center, has locations all over the country, and we have sites in, I believe, 12 states. Those are more of affiliates, but they do give us a national platform.

I believe Anixter Center has the potential to be even bigger, but right now we’re focusing on growing our substance abuse and mental health services here in the Chicagoland area and into the state. There’s a great need for housing and services in the central part of the state. DCFS would like for us to expand [the] services [we provide] to youth, which we’re exploring as well.

DW: What is the main message about Anixter Center you would like to get out?

TG: It’s important for people to know that the Anixter Center is here to provide services to all types of people with disabilities, and we’re here to grow and we want to grow. I want people to understand that people with disabilities are sometimes viewed as a drain on society, but they’re not. They’re members of our community. If they work and play and live in the community, then they have a buying power. So investing in Anixter is also investing in economic development in your neighborhoods. If you take all these people and move them into an institution, they’re not going to work and spend their money and play in your community. There are 28,000 people in Illinois waiting for services from organizations like us, and that’s just people with developmental disabilities. By investing in nonprofit businesses like ours, you’re also investing back into the community.

DW: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

TG: I have two kids. My daughter has a disability, she has epilepsy. … She was diagnosed her freshman year in high school and would have about 20 seizures in a 24-hour period. She is doing much better. She had brain surgery. Wearing the advocacy hat as a parent was a very different perspective for me. She’s at City Colleges getting a community college education. She’s going to transfer next year to a four-year institution.

My son is 16, he’s a junior at Taft, so we go to a lot of lacrosse games and things like that.

We like to travel. I like to cook and read. … I have a very strong network of female friends and make a point of connecting with them often.