The Coast News Group
Life of Liberty participant Jazmin W. rides an adult-sized tricycle during recreation time. Photo by Samantha Taylor

Improving life, promoting liberty and pursuing happiness

OCEANSIDE — For 10 years, Life of Liberty has been serving adults with developmental disabilities while also encouraging independence among its participants.

Also known as LOL, Life of Liberty was created by Debra Howard, who now serves as LOL’s chief executive officer and president. Howard has a passion for the population her program serves, which includes those diagnosed with intellectual, cognitive, mental and physical disabilities.

That passion didn’t always exist for Howard. Before moving to California, she worked as a coroner and an EMT in Georgia. When she moved to California, she wanted to do something different.

She began working with severely emotionally disturbed (SED) teenagers before joining a program similar to LOL as its director. When she later left that position and went back to working with SED teenagers, she realized her passion.

“They are a population of individuals who have been for so long neglected,” she said.

Life of Liberty opened its doors on Oct. 8, 2008. Howard started developing the program’s design earlier that year. She said it was her son, Arrion, who was instrumental in creating the name, choosing the word “liberty” to represent the freedom that the program strives to provide for its participants.

Howard said she uses the term “participants” because it is their choice to be in the program.

“We let (participants) decide what do (they) want to do today,” she said. “It’s so much better to give them options… that’s empowering for them and makes them feel like they matter, and that’s important.”

LOL recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary in October, and in November Howard was recognized as the Oceanside Chamber of Commerce’s “Member of the Month.” She was accompanied by several of her staff members when she was recognized at the Nov. 28 City Council meeting.

There are approximately 17 LOL staff members, including Howard, and 60 participants, she said. Many of those participants use the program’s provided transportation, which includes two licensed Class B CDL drivers. Those transportation services extend as far south as Encinitas and as east as Fallbrook and San Marcos. The program also relies on the North County Transit District’s Lift program to pick up people who live as far as Escondido.

There are three components to the LOL program: Wola Nani, a Xhosa word meaning “we embrace and develop one another;” Nantucket, meaning “place of peace” for the program; and Puyallup, a Native American word meaning “generous people.”

Wola Nani accommodates participants who exhibit behaviors that are believed to be socially unacceptable, such as having explosive episodes, according to the LOL’s website. LOL has a licensed behavior specialist who assists participants in this program with individual functional analysis plans.

Life of Liberty CEO and Founder Debra Howard explains the Oceanside-based daytime program, which serves adults with developmental disabilities. Photo by Samantha Taylor

Nantucket is designed for participants who can handle independent daily living skills such as personal care, hygiene and feeding themselves, among other things. Those in Puyallup, the main component of the program, serves participants between 18 and 75 who are looking to develop skillsets and make their own choices.

There are several rooms in LOL’s facility meant for various educational and vocational training services, such as a kitchen, recreation room, fitness center and classrooms.

Inclusivity is a big priority for LOL. The program wants to make sure participants have the opportunity to do just about anything that the general population can do, whether that’s going to the gym next door rather than the facility’s fitness center if they desire to do so, or taking college classes. LOL even partners with MiraCosta College, which sends educators to the LOL facility to teach the participants.

LOL also assists participants with job searching. The facility has a computer lab where participants can apply for jobs and a room where they can try on and prep themselves for job interviews. LOL staff will conduct mock interviews with the participants and will help them determine if they have the right skillsets needed for their desired jobs. Howard said LOL staff lets the participants decide where they want to apply for work. A few participants are employed with LOL, such as Sergio L. and Marlem R. (LOL policy dictates that participants can only be referred to by their first name and the initial of their last name).

Sergio, who takes the Lift service to LOL from Escondido every day, works the program’s front desk. Marlem vacuums virtually the entire facility.

Sergio said LOL has helped him to “move around” and learn time management.

“I have to be ready for work, I have a time to clock in,” he said.

When Sergio first became a participant five years ago, he couldn’t read. That’s no longer the case for him thanks to the services LOL provides. Marlem improved her English skills through the program.

“It’s really rewarding when you see that you literally made a difference,” Howard said.

Howard explained that allowing the participants to make their choices empowers them — even if that means they make a mistake or two.

“They are capable of so many things that we feel that they’re not, so it’s natural for us to want to help them,” she said. “But you’re not doing them justice or doing them a favor.”

Successful independence is the core of what LOL tries to ensure for its participants, according to Chief Executive Administrator Gerald Hampton.

“We try on a daily basis to ensure that when participants come in they have a good day or that we make their lives better,” he said. “The reality is I think they make our lives better because of the interactions we have with them.”

Both Hampton and Howard said there is never a day that they dread coming into work. Their passion for the population they serve plays a big part in that.

“If you’re doing something that you’re passionate about, that makes it even better,” Hampton said.

Having a passion for those LOL serves is essential to the program’s success, according to Howard.

“You have to love this population to work with this population,” she said. “It’s emotionally demanding and it can be physically demanding at times… you have to be caring and compassionate, and you better be patient.”

Howard praised her staff members who work with participants on a daily basis.

“If it weren’t for (staff’s) contribution, LOL would not be the program that it is,” she said. “I could sit here in this office and create every policy there is and implement it, but if the staff members do not feel that they are really appreciated, if they do not have that genuine respect for the participants, then the success of this program would not be what it is today.”

Future goals for LOL include revamping its website and improving its social media presence, Hampton said. He added that Howard is looking into establishing a Life of Liberty Foundation as a non-profit entity, and researching local residential programming possibilities and expanding LOL’s services to Northern California.