Meet Lori! She is the founder and executive director of Next Step Ministries, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization serving teens, and young adults with special needs in Cherokee, Cobb, and Fulton counties. As a physical therapist, she worked in many practice settings including hospitals, outpatient centers, rehabilitation centers, home health, and the Cherokee County Schools. This was where the need for Next Step Ministries was identified.
She is a graduate of the physical therapy program at the University of Michigan, and a graduate of the MBA program at Kennesaw State University. Lori is active with the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce, serving on the Chamber Board and Governmental Affairs Council, as well as a graduate of the 2013 Leadership Cherokee class. In addition, she is also a member of the Rotary Club of Canton, the Kiwanis Club of Greater Cherokee, and the Woodstock Christian Business Network.
She lives with her husband Randy in Woodstock, where they are active members of First Baptist Church of Woodstock. For fun, Lori enjoys hiking and reading and plays the cello in the orchestra at FBCW and in the trio We Three Strings. Their daughter Katherine attends Law School at Mercer University in Macon. We are grateful Lori took time out of her busy schedule to discuss her journey with Next Step Ministries!
Susan Guda: What is your background in working with people with disabilities? How did it influence your career?
Lori Baker: Years ago my mom had MS, but we didn’t really talk about it. When I was seven, eight, nine years old, I asked her why she was “walking the walls.” She said, “I’ve got Multiple Sclerosis but I’m not going to die from it.”
When I was sixteen, and learning to drive, I took her into Detroit for physical therapy. I looked around and what they were doing was really cool. That was my first glimpse of what physical therapy was. Fast forward, I ended up going into PT school (University of Michigan) and really loving it. I went into more of a focus on developmental disabilities.
SG: How long were you working for Cherokee County Schools?
LB: I worked in a school system in Lansing, Michigan. Later, I ended up in Georgia and worked in several different facilities. The story picks up when I was working in the Cherokee County School System as a Physical Therapist. I did that for about ten years. This is where I became aware of the need for transition services for our special needs population.
SG: What led you to found Next Step Ministries?
LB: People with disabilities can go to school until their 22nd birthday, then they “age out”. The goal really is to get an education and become as independent as possible. But what happens when they get out of school and are not able to care for themselves? Think about that as a parent: when your child is 22 and graduates, you are somewhere in your mid-forties to early sixties, the height of your career. You can’t just stop. And if you are dealing with an adult needing 24/7 care, it is very wearing physically, and it can cause a lot of stress on the family.
When I was working for the schools, I participated in a church mission trip down to Argentina. On that long plane ride, I thought a lot about this. Parents had been coming to me to ask about options after high school. If there was something out there, they would have found it. All I can tell you is the Lord just laid on my heart, “Why don’t you do it?”
Although I was passionate about this, I didn’t want to essentially change careers. I was getting close to fifty, I had a child in school, summers off, six-hour workdays, it was great. I wasn’t looking for a change. But it was in my heart and He wouldn’t let go. About three months after the initial thought, I talked about it to my husband. I hadn’t even brought up the idea before. I felt if God was speaking to one person, He’d speak to the spouse as well. So, I talked to my husband about this idea and he said “Okay!” That was the biggest shock of my life. I was involved in different networking events and finally found a location where we could open. But really, that’s how we got started.
SG: But You phased out of the school system at the same time. Was there a certain time when you said ‘that’s it’?
LB: The school year has its rhythm and I couldn’t really leave in the middle of it, because there were students I was responsible for treating. For a while, I was doing school therapy as well as Next Step preparation stuff. It took close to two years because I was not just opening doors but also figuring out program activities, policies and procedures, payroll, insurance, rules and regulations, incorporation and 501(c)3 status, etc.
SG: Who came alongside you when you first started?
LB: In the initial concept stage, I did a lot of talking and planning with another school occupational therapist. She needed a paying job through but was helpful initially. Next Step Ministries opened doors with three clients and two staff members in May 2009. One was a teacher who had been a stay-at-home mom, and she eventually went back into the Cherokee Country Schools. We’ve had several other people who were with us for a season. I was making progress with my passion but also developing a business, so I was on two pathways simultaneously.
SG: There are so many ways for people to give back to the community, what is the big ‘why’ for people caring about Next step Ministries?
LB: Think about it. If that was your child, and your child is getting ready to graduate from high school and they have meals through a tube in their stomach, or they can’t go to the bathroom by themselves, or they can’t give you a simple “Yes” or “No” to a basic question, what are you going to do? What does your life look like?
People need to understand that your friends will change, your ability to do things like go to church or work, or grocery shopping, or social activities, that all changes. I think there are so many people out there that you might not realize have a special needs child. If that was your child, how would you want people to respond to you? How would you want your child cared for?
We provide care and support for our clients and their families. Our clients are in the low-moderate, severe to profound developmentally delayed range, and those who are medically fragile. It was not their choice to be born with a disability, and close to one hundred percent of their families did not choose this. They are dealing with a lot of things they did not ask for. But to know our clients and our families is to know some amazing people. Because our clients cannot look forward to independent living, this is a lifetime commitment their parents make.
SG: They are our neighbors, they are people in the community, and their silent hurt is something the community needs to understand. There needs to be more understanding so the community can come out in support because everything affects everyone, it doesn’t have to be your own family.
LB: I think some people do not like to interact with people with disabilities because they don’t know about it. But when you get to know them, there is such pureness and honesty there. They appreciate so much when people interact with them and when others treat them as real people. There’s a lot they can teach us. They can teach us about patience, loving people, and reaching beyond ourselves.
If you think about it, our God who created the entire world and made everything work – when someone has a disability it’s not like He didn’t see that coming. Each person is created for His will in their lives, and He doesn’t create junk. So, what can you learn from somebody with a disability? What can you learn about yourself? What can you learn about the “disabled” person? What can you learn about compassion?
SG: Aside from financially, what can the community do to help support?
LB: Talk to people who are in wheelchairs, and don’t automatically assume you know what they need (or that they are hard of hearing or intellectually disabled!). Help them with a door – after you have asked if they need or would like help. Talk to them, and not just the person they are with.
If people want to spend time with us volunteering, or sharing a talent, that’s huge. And whether it’s our organization or another organization, I think God has gifted us in different areas. Find what it is whether it’s a food pantry, pregnancy center, homeless shelter or whatever, find some way to give back. Because the secret to volunteering is that you get more from it than you ever give.
SG: How can families get involved in the Next Step community?
LB: We have a friends and family picnic every year at our main facility. This year it is going to be April 18. We have our staff come with their families, clients and their families, donors, our volunteers, and we have a fun couple of hours over lunch. Families come in and connect with other families, it really is a fun time.
A couple of times a year we’ll have education programs about long-term financial planning, guardianship, and more. A lot of times, the family’s long-term plan was that the sibling was going to take care of this child, and that can be a heavy burden. We help families unpack what they are going to do so everyone can be on the same page.
SG: Tell us about the sensory-friendly theater partnership you have with Elm Street.
LB: Our clients don’t have many opportunities to get out and have a cultural experience. And part of that is that they might not be able to sit through a two-hour play or concert. But together with Elm Street, we make efforts from dimming the lights less to providing alternate seating, to letting them roam around and know what’s coming next in a performance, which helps them adjust so they can enjoy as much as possible. This way everyone can attend together. It’s great for family bonding, and we would encourage families with special needs family members of all ages to check the Elm Street Theatre schedule for the sensory-friendly performances.
SG: What is the biggest need right now you have?
LB: I think we have experienced a tremendous amount of growth because no one’s really working in the space we are with developmentally challenged individuals. We are almost to a waiting list point now.
People can go to our website and donate any amount to our capital campaign to help us get into a bigger space. Or if people are working in construction, hopefully, they can donate their products or services. Call us and let us know if you are willing to help with either materials or time. That would be huge.
We are planning a wheelchair accessible, low maintenance boardwalk on our property and I need to plan the labor part of that once we stabilize where the new building is going to go. A lot of our guys don’t get to go into the woods because they are in a wheelchair and trails are a little bit challenging.
SG: Tell us more about the ministry side of Next Step Ministries.
LB: Because we’re a Christian ministry first and a service provider second, we take things from a different perspective. You don’t need to be a Christian to be here. If clients come to us and they are waiting for their Medicaid waiver, or are unable to afford our rates, we find a way to provide the needed service. We believe God will provide one way or another and we still have a responsibility to care for them.
SG: How can someone get involved as a volunteer or intern?
LB: We have a volunteer coordinator and they would need to go to our website to sign up. We have several levels of volunteering people can choose from. They can either work directly with the client or do some landscaping or cleaning, and all of that really helps us run the business. We also work with a lot of interns in the area. We think it’s important for nurses to learn how to communicate with people with disabilities and our place is a great place to train them. Over the summer we hire a few students and it’s a good place for people to figure out if this is really what they want to do. Plus, it looks great on a resume.
SG: Are there ways professionals can get involved?
LB: If people are interested in serving on the board, we always need help in that area. We meet every fourth Thursday of the month. It’s a great working board. Right now, we would love somebody to join us who is a lawyer to help us with employment laws, contracts, all of that. A doctor experienced with special needs would be wonderful. All we ask is that they have a heart for this population and that they participate in church as we are a Christian ministry.
SG: Not about candidates but about issues, what are some things that you are paying attention to now in the Georgia house or senate?
LB: The proposed six percent budget cut is affecting our Medicaid waivers. From what we understand is that in 2020 there will be few to no new waivers given out. There is already a huge waiting list. When people need services like ours, it is not automatic. There are a certain number of waivers given out and that’s it. We’ve had people come to us after five years being on this waiting list to be able to get the resources we offer.
Another area is the residential component. There can be no more than four special needs people in a group home. Its seen as discriminatory to put more than four people with special needs in a home together, but what are we doing for seniors and for foster care? We need to have more residential resources for care for people with disabilities than exist right now. Their parents are aging and having difficulty providing the needed care, but our clients don’t belong in skilled nursing homes.
SG: How many clients are you servicing?
LB: As of January, we have 42 clients on average. We have more who have been approved but they are waiting for funding. Last year we worked with 65 families, and some of those families have more than one special needs child. We are the only resource, that I know of, in the state of Georgia providing therapeutic day care services for the low-moderate to severe and profoundly developmentally delayed and medically fragile adults.
What is Next Step Ministries in Community
NSM is a 501(c)3 non-profit supporting our families with special needs young adults by providing a variety of therapeutic day care services. The clients we serve are in the low-moderate to severe and profoundly developmentally delayed, and medically fragile, young adults who have aged out of school. This allows the family members to continue with their lives while knowing their loved one is being cared for during the day in an environment where they are loved and respected and can thrive in the community. We service clients from Cherokee, Cobb, and the North Fulton areas.