By Jeff Keeling
Dawn of Hope Executive Director Lee Chase didn’t have any definitive plans when he finished school at East Tennessee State University. As it turned out, a plan was in place for him, though it took about eight years for it to begin to materialize.
After deciding late in his college career that he didn’t want to move away to pursue a city management career, Chase took a job with the Tennessee Department of Human Services’ blind services division. He spent about eight years there before getting hired as Dawn of Hope’s vocational director. His first day was July 20, 1985, but Chase, who became executive director a year later, says the time has flown by.
“All the time God really knows what’s best, but this was just one of those cases that you had to live it to believe it,” he says of his time at the agency, which serves developmentally disabled area residents.
“It has been an absolute dream job,” Chase says. “The opportunity to deal with families, with individuals, to deal with public policy, to deal with government, management and growth – it’s just been very exciting, and frankly I have no idea where 30 years went so fast.”
When Chase took the reins, Dawn of Hope was serving about 125 people, with 32 employees and a $750,000 annual budget. Day programs were at the former Douglas Elementary on Millard Street (now Rise Up), with a 5,000-square-foot sheltered employment workshop nearby on Eddie Williams Road.
Today, the budget is about $11 million, there are 315 employees, and Dawn of Hope serves 210 people in residential programs as well as day programs. Its offices are in the former Stratton Elementary. Much of the growth, Chase said, came when Dawn of Hope began its residential programs in the 1990s. Those were an outgrowth of a federal lawsuit against Tennessee that claimed its institutions for developmentally disabled people, including nearby Greene Valley, were inappropriate.
While the outgrowth of that was traumatic for the service system, Chase says the long-term outcome was positive.
“It actually injected a tremendous amount of funds, it expanded the number of people who were getting services, and it certainly increased the quality and content of the services that they were getting.” Chase says.
“That probably had more of a service and cultural impact on our particular profession than anything that’s happened.”
Another early and significant change came in the late 1980s, when the federal government opened up the opportunity for developmentally disabled people to use “Medicaid waiver funding” to help pay for services. In essence, Chase says, this meant a federal match of $2 for every $1 of state funding for such services. That and changing public attitudes have been a plus for Dawn of Hope clients.
“I think the opportunities we have made for people to find employment where they are in everyday jobs and they interact with non-disabled people is an excellent exposure to both parties – to the disabled and non-disabled – about what life is about.”
The biggest challenge today, Chase says, is federal pressure to serve all clients within the community at least six hours a day. The government has given agencies five years to comply. More than 100 Dawn of Hope clients work at the Stratton site, which wouldn’t qualify. Chase says he hopes to see a reasonable compromise.
Chase says he hopes to work through 2018. Dawn of Hope’s 50th anniversary falls on Nov. 4 of that year. “I would love to be a part of celebrating that great event,” he says.