By Annabelle Zhou,
Former special ed teacher Cynthia True, 54, is employed in a labor of love at her own business. True Connections was opened in 2015 as a unique community-based day program for disabled adults, and is as an option for those unable to work a typical job.
“On top of having a developmental disability, it would be hard for them [to work at a normal job],” True said. “Some of them have autism and it’s really hard for them to communicate, or hard for them understand directions, so they’re not ready to be employed.”
At True Connections, nine clients frequent the park, downtown, Davis Strength and Conditioning and other parts of the community to create a routine that allows them to be out and about.
Years prior to its opening, the idea for True Connections began to form.
True’s daughter, Allie, was born with an intellectual disability and “functions at maybe a 5-year-old [level]. She can’t read, she can’t write, she can read what we call ‘functional words,’ but sentences mean nothing to her,” True said.
After Allie earned her certificate of completion from Davis High, she continued on to the county program.
“[The program] was like a special day class, meaning it was just a bunch of disabled people in a classroom, which is not how we educate people with disabilities in Davis, so I was a little bit appalled,” True said.
Allie’s graduation from high school also brought about a desire to live on her own. True took a leave of absence from her job to support Allie through the county program, whose education was a far cry from DHS.
After a year at the county program, Allie began exhibiting strange behaviors that True had never seen before. True searched ardently for a year, to no avail, for a more suitable program. Davis offered very limited options, so she expanded to surrounding areas, but the prospects were bleak.
“I [didn’t] see anything that would make Allie happy, other than hiring someone one-on-one to hang out with her all day long and just wander aimlessly through Davis and do things, whatever they can find,” True said. “But I [didn’t] see growth. It [wasn’t] right.”
By then, True had outlined on paper a “perfect program” offering exactly what her daughter needed–places to go with crafts, games and sports. This program didn’t exist.
True never returned from her leave of absence; she quit her job and spent a year creating the program she envisioned.
“There isn’t anyplace you can just call up and say, ‘Hey, I want to open a day program, how do I do that?’ There’s no one that’s going to loan you any money to do it either because you don’t make any money,” she said.
Some of the first steps in the process involved getting licensed and creating a business plan.
But as the plan unfolded, the numbers just didn’t add up.
“Each person that’s here, I get $53.86 a day,” True said. “My rent alone is $3000 a month. So I’m working on my business plan going, ‘The numbers aren’t working, it’s not going to work.’ ”
True was unable to get a loan, but her father came to the rescue.
“I think the whole thing that had really started it is, my mother was in hospice and then she passed away, so then I had to take care of my dad,” True recalled. “And my dad said, ‘well, I think I can give you about $30,000.’”
With some startup money, True launched into action. True Connections, on Fifth Street, was formerly home to a tanning salon, so she had to literally knock down walls from tanning booths, redo the floor and fix every electrical outlet to create the space she needed.
True’s struggle is slowly paying off.
“I’m about $60,000 in the hole,” she said. “I will never take a salary, but it’s OK. It’s viable now; with nine people, we’re covering the bills.”
True prefers to focus on her clients rather than her finances. Something her clients really enjoy is pickleball, though they often don’t react in time to sustain a volley.
“When the ball hits their paddle, or they actually move in time to catch the ball, they’re just delighted,” True said. “And when you see things like that, it just makes everything worth it.”