The Center for Higher Independence Empowers Young People with Disabilities

The Center for Higher Independence (CHI) at Providence Place in San Antonio, Texas is designed for recent graduates and young adults who are looking for ways to live more independently. For most high school graduates, their biggest concern is finding the right college. This isn’t always an option for people with disabilities. That’s why this program offers their services as an alternative for people who are eighteen years old or older.

Terri Gutierrez is the Director of Admissions for the Center for Higher Independence at Providence Place. Gutierrez explains, “This organization has been operating for one hundred and eleven years now, and started as a maternity care and adoption program. It later developed into a facility geared towards helping people with a wide range of disabilities, to help them become more independent.“

Since 1974, the professionals at the Center for Higher Independence have been working with adults with disabilities to help them achieve their goals and become more self-reliant. Students at CHI live in a campus setting where they learn vocational, social, and other vital life skills to help them lead independent lives. Students are taught to ride busses to wherever they need to go, to shop and cook for themselves, to manage their finances, and to clean and maintain their own apartments. CHI also works with each individual student to determine what support is needed in order for them to achieve success.

In addition to important everyday life skills, students at CHI are also able to take a variety of job-focused classes in areas such as horticulture, housekeeping and maintenance, clerical work and more. Upon graduating from CHI, students with disabilities will receive job-placement assistance and can expect to hold paying jobs that allow them to become more self-reliant. CHI maintains a relationship with the employers of its students, and works closely with them to ensure that the students are meeting their needs.

“Our focus is on work and independence,” Gutierrez says.

“The whole campus, including the dorms and apartments, is wheelchair accessible. We’re a strictly transitional program; meaning people from across the U.S. come to us and start in a dorm room, similar to a college. Residents are given chores that they do every day as well as classes they attend. These classes cover topics such as how to get along with your boss, how to
behave in a work environment, shopping, cooking, and general social skills.

We even provide workshops where the students can learn about time and money management. After they have learned to be more independent and they’re shopping and cooking on their own, that’s when we move them to one of our apartments.

It’s a step by step process that generally takes around eighteen months. Once an individual has gone through this process, there’s no doubt they’ll be more independent, and more confident in every day environments. For every thirteen to fifteen people, we assign a case manager. Thecase manager acts as a mentor. But, we also have trainers and therapists on staff. I’ve been doing this for over nine years now, and because I’m the Director of Admissions, I’m the one who does the interview at the beginning with the young person. A lot of times, the young men and women who sit down in front of me have been sheltered and dependent their entire lives and in many cases have never been away from home. I’ve done over a thousand interviews to welcome new students. So for me, it’s gratifying, after I see them at the beginning while they’re scared and can’t do many things on their own, to see them at the end when they’re more confident, proud, and taking care of themselves.

I get to watch them grow up, and that’s what’s special. People with disabilities can do anything. Whether it’s a family member telling you that you can’t do things or a friend, we believe that you can; and you will. If you’re feeling scared about your life and future, you have to know that you have your entire life to make something out of yourself, but you have to make the decision to do so.

”The Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) refers many students. CHI welcomes others who hear about the program from family, community, or religious organizations. Tuition payment options are through DARS or private pay.

The twenty-five acre campus is completely wheelchair accessible and is convenient to the South Texas Medical Center, with bus stops and para-transportation. Socialization, an important aspect of CHI training, includes activities geared to fostering friendships and balancing work and fun. CHI students enjoy amenities such as computer lab, walking/rolling trail, health and wellness programs including a full-size gym and exercise activities, swimming pool, barbecue pavilion, residential dormitory, and apartments.

This past June, after months of effort, challenges, and struggles, twenty six young adults with disabilities crossed the stage for the 41st Annual Center for Higher Independence (CHI) graduation ceremony at Providence Place. It was the largest graduating class in the past ten years.


Editors Note: Lisa has helped create several online social communities ( for friends who use wheelchairs to help people discover new relationships, lifestyle resources and web-based support groups. Lisa guides healthcare providers in creating support programs and communication resources for people who have disabilities. A frequent speaker and guest columnist, you will find her presenting at disability and healthcare conferences nationwide.

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