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Journeys in Community Living has been dedicated since 1975 to supporting adults with intellectual disabilities as they choose and realize their personal visions of how they want to live, work and socialize.
Longtime Journeys Director Betty McNeely to retire Nov. 1
Leaving behind legacy of improving lives for those with disabilities
MURFREESBORO — The longtime director of a local nonprofit organization that supports people with intellectual disabilities will retire Nov. 1, leaving behind a legacy of expanding opportunities for the population she served for 38 years.
Betty McNeely, executive director of Journeys in Community Living, announced her impending retirement in a recent email to fellow employees and in a letter to the family members of people with intellectual disabilities currently served by the organization.
“I wanted you all to know how much I have enjoyed working with you over the years (some of you have been here from the beginning),” she wrote to family members, adding that she respects and admires the love and devotion they show to their loved ones. “I know this is why they are such amazing people and have brought so much joy to my life.”
McNeely started her career in the field of special education in the early 1970s, where she worked for Sumner County Schools identifying students that would benefit from special education services. She also spent three years as a comprehensive development classroom teacher. She obtained her masters of special education from George Peabody College at Vanderbilt in 1973. In 1979 she obtained a special certificate of competency in developmental disabilities program management from the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
She earned several education honors during her years as a student, including a special education traineeship at George Peabody from 1972 to 1973.
State Rep. Mike Sparks honored McNeely with a special proclamation from the state legislature in 2014 for transforming “the organization from a small activity center into a large multi-program agency supporting more than 100” people with intellectual disabilities.
McNeely was honored by former Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner James M. Henry in 2012 with a certificate of appreciation in recognition of her longtime service on the DIDD Advisory Council. It was there, wrote Henry, McNeely promoted “the best interests of Tennesseans affected by intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
A journey has to start somewhere
Her career at Journeys began in a rather unintentional manner when Beverly Carlin, former director of Journeys and a friend of McNeely, asked McNeely in the late 70s to join Journeys and to help out its then roughly 30 employees for one year.
The rest is “history,” as McNeely has said in the past.
She fell in love with the atmosphere and the adults with intellectual disabilities served by the organization and ended up staying. She was hired in 1978 as the organization’s full-time director after Carlin’s departure.
Journeys, which up until 2011 was called the Rutherford County Adult Activity Center, functioned primarily as a recreation and daycare service for families of people with intellectual disabilities in earlier years.
Virtually no one with an intellectual disability was in the workforce back when the organization opened its doors and even fewer lived in their own homes.
McNeely led Journeys’ staff as those things began to change over the years, but she is always quick to point out that neither she nor her staff were really leading the people with intellectual disabilities.
Instead, she explains, “they (the people with intellectual disabilities) were leading us.
“We didn’t even realize it at the time,” McNeely said, “but with every program we established, they were learning new skills and then utilizing those skills in ways which we had never dreamed. They led us where they wanted go, which was further into the community and into more integrated settings. They were adults and they wanted to live like adults.”
Though McNeely tends to shy away from taking credit for the successes of the organization’s population, those who have worked with her understand that without her leadership, much would not have been possible.
For example, not long after becoming director, McNeely led the organization as it launched a Vocational Program for the people it serves. The program continues today to support them in learning work skills and holding down competitive jobs in the community. McNeely also took over and transformed the operations of Rutherford Industries, the name given to Journeys’ production facility on Haley Road where individuals supported by the program completed contract work to earn money.
She was also at the helm as Journeys launched its Residential, Community Day and Healthcare Oversight Programs, all of which continue to aid the people served by the organization as they live independently.
The Residential Program is aimed at helping the people served by Journeys find and rent their own homes and apartments, providing staff support as needed.
“Our people live regular lives in the community as a result of this program,” McNeely explained.
The agency’s Community Day program remains focused on expanding recreational and training opportunities for the people being served by the agency, while also giving them volunteer experience with organizations like Meals on Wheels. This allows them to give back to the community and show everyone they are not just recipients of charity, but also assets to the community.
The Healthcare Oversight Program provides individuals with the support and tools they need to live healthier lives. That program is funded primarily by the United Way of Rutherford & Cannon Counties and allows Journeys to employ a staff of social workers and a registered nurse to coordinate the medical care of the people the organization works with.
A never-ending journey
McNeely has continued to help Journeys navigate a changing industry in very recent years.
Journeys and similar programs — which have for more than 20 years been operating under the umbrella of the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities — are now beginning to work more intensively with TennCare in anticipation of contracting with managed care organizations for service delivery. Opportunities will also become available for people with autism and other developmental disabilities in addition to people with intellectual disabilities.
Currently, Journeys is in the process of completing a transition plan that was crafted under the direction of McNeely and Journeys’ board of directors, which is aimed at pushing the entire organization and its programs towards being more community based.
The production center (Rutherford Industries) is being converted into a focused, time-limited training program for high demand employment areas. Changes will also include a more focused emphasis on learning more generalized vocational skills, such as how to dress for a job and how to participate in an interview.
Even more recently, McNeely led Journeys’ board members as they voted to expand services to include elderly people with any type of disability. That has effectively paved the way for further integration in Journeys’ programming.
In fact, all of the changes instituted under McNeely have been aimed at further expanding opportunities for the people served by the organization, as well as more fully integrating them into non-disabled society.
The impact of one woman’s journey
Perhaps McNeely’s greatest legacy, however, is the rapport she’s earned with people served by Journeys and their families. Families have trusted her and the organization daily with ensuring that their loved ones lead fulfilling and happy lives, many of whom have been a part of the program since its humble beginnings.
She’s also garnered the respect of her fellow co-workers and board members.
“For the past 31 years, Betty has been my supervisor, mentor, and friend,” said Frances Cook, Journeys’ social services director. “She has played a major role in my life and in the lives of those with intellectual disabilities. Her imprint on the organization will be everlasting.”
Joyce Ealy, current chair of Journeys’ board of directors and a former county commissioner and school teacher, said McNeely’s steadfast leadership of Journeys for so many years has been admirable. Ealy said the board knows it will be difficult to find someone to fill her shoes.
Ealy had the job of coordinating with McNeely on an exit strategy and transition plan, as well as working with Journeys’ human resources department on advertising for McNeely’s replacement.
“There are not many people left today like Betty McNeely,” Ealy said of McNeely recently. “Betty has exhibited a strong commitment to supporting people with intellectual disabilities. Her ability to direct the organization through so many changes in this field over the years is truly impressive, especially when you consider what things were like for most people with intellectual disabilities when she entered the field so many years ago.
“Myself and the rest of the board would like to congratulate Betty on her retirement,” Ealy added. “We hope she knows how valuable she has been to the lives of so many individuals and families and how dearly she will be missed!”
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Journeys in Community Living
1130 Haley Rd., Murfreesboro, Tenn. 37129
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