Whether fighting hunger, rebuilding failing businesses or providing services to those with mental disabilities, John Farman's focus has always been helping others.
"I wanted to make a difference in the world," said Farman, the founder and executive director of Antioch-based Community Integrated Support Services, or CISS.
The nonprofit organization, now in its 10th year and funded by the state and federal governments, is expanding its Guiding Unique Individuals in Developing Excellence, or GUIDE, program in Brentwood, where clients with developmental disabilities receive paid vocational training in several fields while working for local businesses and residents.
The nonprofit pays the clients the minimum wage of $8 per hour; in return for the labor, the businesses make a tax-deductible donation to CISS. Farman, 51, is seeking more clients and businesses.
"The goal of GUIDE is "... to engage in the community so that we can support (clients) in earning an income," he said. "That helps build self-esteem. Our goal in this economy is to wean us off as much government support as we can.
"We see it as a win for the community, a win for our clients and a win for the taxpayers."
CISS employees say Farman's drive has made the company successful.
'Not just a job'
"He wears his heart on his sleeve," CISS day program director Jechane Reyes said. "He does it because he cares and wants to help people. It fulfills his life, and it's not a job to him. He's very motivated to help this community."
Shortly after graduating with a business degree from La Salle University in Philadelphia, Farman attended a seminar about the challenges of solving world hunger. The seminar inspired the then-26-year-old to work for the Hunger Project in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early '90s as an educator and lobbyist, working to create long-term solutions to hunger.
Big media events such as the Live Aid concerts in 1985 did not cure hunger because they concentrated on one-time donations rather than long-term solutions, he said. One goal of the Hunger Project is to teach people how to become self-reliant through farming.
"If the light is shone brightly on a particular subject, the proper answers and solutions tend to follow," Farman said. "Most people who perish from hunger don't perish from starvation. They perish from chronic, persistent hunger. That's something that was very important to me back then, and it still is."
In the mid-1990s, Farman dismantled and reconstructed businesses that faced bankruptcy and marketed educational and accounting software. After the software firm folded in 2001 during the dot-com crash, he decided to take stock of his skills -- public speaking, fundraising and working with business owners -- to try something new.
He and his wife, Margaret, who was then deputy director of the California Autism Foundation, found out about a $60,000 grant offered by the Regional Center of the East Bay to open a group home and day program for adults with developmental disabilities.
They applied for and won the grant. To start the business, Farman obtained an operating license from the state and regional center, which receives state funding and funnels it -- along with clients -- to vendors such as CISS. A year later, CISS used the grant money to open a group home in Hercules for teens.
Although Farman, his wife and three children lived in San Rafael, he started the business in Antioch because the regional center told him there was a great need for these services in East Contra Costa.
CISS also started an Antioch day program in which adults expand their living skills and are offered outlets for creative and physical expression and social connections.
Expansion of services
The Antioch program's services have expanded over the years. Adults with more serious developmental disabilities take part in a day program that involves recreational activities such as bowling, attending baseball games, movies and park outings.
"It's bringing a sense of community," Farman said. "They know there is a place they can go every day that is safe. That builds momentum over time.
"People have a greater sense of self-expression, of security. They have a tendency to grow."
Other programs include supportive living services, where CISS works with adults in their homes to assist with such tasks as banking, grocery shopping, cleaning and transportation.
In 2009, CISS started a new program in which clients receive paid vocational training.
GUIDE trains clients in basic landscaping, maintenance, clerical, construction and janitorial work.
Businesses and residents who partner with CISS can save a little money to have someone mop a floor, mow a lawn or complete some filing, Farman said.
A sense of community
Businesses that team with GUIDE have varied from a Brentwood church to an insurance office in Oakley owned by agent Jose Martinez. He said CISS clients spent a week in 2010 cleaning his property.
"I thought they deserve an opportunity to work," he said. "I was very pleased with what they did for us. It's a neat thing for them to earn some additional money."
Tyree West is one of 18 clients in the GUIDE program. The 22-year-old Brentwood resident said he has grown leaps and bounds in nearly a year.
"I want to an opportunity to get a job -- a real job -- doing landscaping," he said. "I want to go to work every day. That's my goal."
Susan Wallis, a 53-year-old client, said she enjoys being involved because there is no pressure to succeed.
"They help you through it," she said.
Wallis, who lives in Antioch, said she has concentrated on learning office skills; she also has picked up landscaping skills.
"I've been learning how to file, how to punch holes in papers, make copies and mail stuff off," she said. "I want to be a helper of office work. I want to learn a lot."
Farman has expanded GUIDE to accept 12 more clients to train in the community.
CISS is funded by the California Department of Health and Human Services, through the Regional Center of the East Bay, the largest of 21 such centers in the state.
Farman said his goal is to expand the GUIDE program by seeking more donations from the businesses that solicit his clients' services. With that money, he wants to expand the services CISS offers and possibly pay its clients more for their work.
Farman would like to see CISS become less dependent on government funding, which has fallen significantly during the economic downturn.
"I'm hoping the program can grow bigger," West said. "(People) with disabilities should know they can come here to get a job."
Contact Roman Gokhman at 925-779-7189. Follow him at Twitter.com/romithewriter.
HOMETOWN: San Rafael
CLAIM TO FAME: Executive director of Community Integrated Support Services, Inc. in Antioch
QUOTE: "Without our services, (our clients) would not have a place to go to every day, be with their peers and be out in the community, or have an opportunity to work. We provide a bridge. We see us meeting the community in that way, providing a very important need."
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