Unsung Santa Cruz: Cissi Van Wickler and Judy Locke help differently abled youth reach independence

The CALI Project clients and staff get ready to eat at their weekly Tuesday dinner gathering.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After working in local schools for years, Cissi Van Wickler and Judy Locke grew tired of seeing differently-abled students leave school without direction and proper support. Together, they have built the CALI Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping differently abled young adults learn the skills and achieve the confidence necessary to reach the highest level of independence possible.

CALI Project founders Cissi Van Wickler and Judy Locke stroll into the adjoining kitchen and dining area within the organization’s house on Mission Street in Santa Cruz, just down the street from Santa Cruz High School. It has just the basics — a small stove, fridge, freezer, and some cupboard space for supplies and ingredients.

A common area is furnished with donated armchairs and sofas, and complete with a TV, a miniature pool table, a variety of board games and a tiny Christmas tree. The home has the feel of an off-campus college house right around winter break.

That collegiate vibe is integral to the CALI Project, which acts as both a part-time and a full-time home to young adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities.

“That’s what we love about this place,” said Van Wickler. “This truly is like a college living experience.”

The project is a supportive living service, but with a twist. Its clientele — young adults in their late teens and 20s with developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disabilities — are working to learn life skills with the goal of living more independently, rather than staying in an assisted living environment. Van Wickler says the organization does this through teaching “adaptive thinking skills,” or ways that clients can recognize their difficulties and find the right tools to help them work with their disabilities.

Five years after taking on its first client, the CALI (Community Alliance for Lifelong Independence) Project now works with up to 15 differently abled young adults at any given time, with the vision of helping each of them attain the highest level of independence possible. Van Wickler and Locke call their approach a “gradual release program.”

“It’s basically taking a client and allowing them privileges, but making them earn those privileges by showing that they can be independent in the community, household, and make responsible choices,” said Van Wickler.

On Tuesday evenings, Van Wickler, Locke and the clients have dinner together. It’s prepared by one of the young adults in the program — cooking is a skill many of them learn during their time at the CALI Project.

This week, Garrett Deaver, 27, prepares two heaping trays of carne asada nachos along with a side of beans.

Garrett Deaver and Cissi Van Wickler prepare to bring the food out to the dining area.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

While Deaver puts the finishing touches on his meal, the others kick back in the common area, grazing on some chips and assorted nuts. The bass line of Ke$ha’s “Die Young” thumps from the portable speaker on top of the fridge as the group shoots the breeze the way friends do.

The CALI Project’s program is built into different stages that clients can move through as they gain confidence and hone their life skills — but only if they wish to proceed. Some learn of the program through school, by word of mouth, or through the San Andreas Regional Center nonprofit serving differently abled people throughout Santa Cruz and its neighboring counties.

The first stage, called Community ILS (independent life skills), is an assessment period, open to anyone, where someone from the CALI Project will meet the client or a family at their home, workplace or elsewhere in the community. Then project personnel will identify the goals the client should work toward in order to gain confidence and independence.

Through this, some clients will move onto phase one, a transitional housing arrangement where they live in the house three days a week for up to two years. They will work to develop more tangible skills, such as maintaining chore schedules, meal preparation, budgeting and more. Over time, the people in this phase will be able to better determine their level of independence before moving to more independent living.

Some of those clients will transition to full-time living — phase 2 — intended for clients who require very little daily hands-on coaching. They get experience living harmoniously with roommates and performing chores and daily duties. Locke said that component is a key part of the program.

“The reality is, in Santa Cruz, they’re not going to be able to afford rent on their own and will always have roommates,” she said. “Learning to live with others is one of the biggest things about our program.”

CALI Project
The exterior of the house on Mission Street.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Van Wickler, 41, said she has always cared for people with special needs.

“My first physical fight in elementary school was because someone was making fun of a special-needs kid,” she said. “I’ve always had a heart for it.”

A Santa Cruz native, Van Wickler initially went to school to be an auto mechanic. Her sister suggested that she work for the Santa Cruz-based childhood yoga and education program BALANCE4Kids to help pay for school. She quickly fell in love with the work.

After school, she worked as a mechanic but took up a substitute teacher gig on her days off. Over time, she realized that aiding youth was her true passion.

She spent 13 years working with differently abled students in local high schools. She grew tired of seeing former students hit a wall post-graduation — still living at their family home, often without a job or sense of direction.

Many of the youth she worked with were overlooked by existing supportive living programs due to their generally higher level of independence than those to whom those programs are tailored. “They’re too high for many programs out there right now,” she said. “They’re either gonna get pushed down or they’ll just live with their parents and stay comfortable. I got tired of seeing that and seeing the loneliness.”

Locke, 61, has been a physical education teacher for 31 years. Locke was working as a PE teacher at Soquel High School — the same high school Van Wickler attended growing up. She felt similarly about those same students.

“I knew many of them were not working to their capacity or doing what they were capable of,” Locke said. “But I had not actually thought about working in that field until I ran into Cissi.”

Locke (middle) is all smiles as Deaver extends an arm to his girlfriend, Karley Quick
Locke (middle) is all smiles as Deaver extends an arm to his girlfriend, Karley Quick.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

When they were both working at Soquel High, Van Wickler shared her vision with Locke of helping these students develop life skills. Soon after, they began working to bring that vision to a reality. Getting it off the ground, though, required some work.

“We were thinking everybody would love this idea, and they did, but when it came to funding, not everybody seemed to love it,” said Van Wickler.

“We were trying to do things that they hadn’t done before, so we didn’t fit the mold for these kinds of services,” said Locke. “But that was the point: We wanted to do something new.”

Van Wickler had her doubts at first, having never started a business. Locke, though, had experience in business administration and startup. Together, they began the program’s first iteration in 2017, which they ran out of Van Wickler’s apartment.

“Then a woman whose son we were helping told us that she loved the program and wanted us to be able to help more people,” said Van Wickler. “That’s when we came up with this house.”

They leased the house on Mission Street in 2018. After four years, they decided they needed to purchase the house or possibly lose it, due to ballooning interest rates and a dwindling supply of housing. Owning the house would allow them increased control over costs and ensure they would not be subject to annual rent hikes.

Thanks to community support, donations and financial contributions from families of past clients, they were able to come up with the $150,000 down payment to purchase the house on Mission Street this year.

cali project
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Donors raised around $60,000 and the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County got them $25,000 in grants and a low-interest loan as a third mortgage.

“We got right in on the very edge before interest rates skyrocketed,” said Locke. “We went to the community and said we’ve gotta pull the trigger now, and everybody just rallied.”

Families of CALI Project clients wear that support on their sleeves.

Alcinda Walters, mother of CALI Project client Tyler Walters, said she believes Van Wickler and Locke’s approach makes a huge difference.

“I think what’s so unique is that they let you fall down, you really have to try to do things as much as you can on your own, and then they come in and build you up,” she said. “Parents have a hard time doing that.”

Alcinda Walters said she thinks the CALI Project has found the perfect formula for success. She explained that Tyler was diagnosed with autism as a child and has experienced a number of cognitive challenges throughout his life. His educators and care team thought he would never be independent. However, with “adaptive thinking skills,” the CALI Project has taught him the problem-solving abilities necessary to bypass those challenges.

“They have the patience, and a relaxed way of managing it all,” said Walters, adding that CALI Project staffers are attentive to each client’s routine and work with them to integrate their newfound skills into their existing routines. “They’re relaxed, they’re not rushing the process, and they’re having fun. I think that’s the magical recipe.”

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Walters admitted it was difficult to let go of her son at first, but that soon changed as she got used to the program.

“Every so often she [Cissi] would go, ‘It’s OK, mom, we got this.’ That took me a little bit of time to get used to and to trust the process,” she said. “But then you see them have the confidence after doing things on their own, and you didn’t have to step in to make it happen.”

Tyler Walters, now a phase 2 client, lives in the house and works a full-time job as a cashier at Costco — fulfilling his desire for a more challenging position than some of his past food-service jobs. Through the project, Tyler has learned to be resourceful in order to help him with cashier duties, like making change, and reading comprehension.

“They’ve shown him all these tools to help him work this job,” she said. “He has a pen that reads aloud for him that Cissi did the research to find, and he makes change on his Apple Watch in 3 seconds. No one can even tell, and he can use those problem-solving skills wherever he goes.”

Each client is looking forward to achieving new goals in the new year.

Tyler Walters says he’s striving to move up in his workplace and wants to earn a supervisor role.

“I want to keep working on my reading skills to help with cashiering and reading receipts quickly, but I’ve gotten pretty good at that already. Also working on talking to Costco members and making sure they’re having a good experience,” he said, adding that he also wishes to find his own place with his roommate within the year.

Deaver, now rooming with his friend and fellow CALI Project client Carson Dye, is moving towards the phase 2 full-time living situation. He can do so by demonstrating his ability to maintain a daily routine and staying on top of regular duties.

“I’m working my way up to seven days, so that means I have to do all my chores, take out the trash, do my laundry, and get to work on time,” he said.

“He’s really organized,” said Locke.

Clients Nick Englade (left) and Carson Dye (right) pose for the camera.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Dye, 25, is also a Costco employee who gives out food samples to shoppers. He is figuring out the kind of work he wants to pursue in the future.

“Getting kind of tired of food service. I’m thinking of maybe leaving Costco entirely, or switching to maintenance,” he said. “I’ve always loved working with my hands and learning new things.”

Phase 1 client Maddie Kienholz, 20, already works full-time at Safeway and recently picked up part-time work supervising and accompanying older patients at local nursing center Hearts & Hands. She’s working toward getting her driver’s license so she doesn’t have to walk or bike home after late Safeway shifts.

Each person has their own aspirations and unique set of skills, and the CALI Project has helped instill the confidence for each of them to put those into action.

Further, the project fosters what many other supportive living services miss: community. As the tight-knit group gathers in their festive common area for a Secret Santa gift exchange, complete with hugs, handshakes and holiday cheer, that sense of community is as clear as ever.

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