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New vocational center and café in San Marcos are brewing up coffee and hope for disabled people

Cheryl Kilmer points out features on the now-underway 20-acre TERI Campus of Life in San Marcos.
Cheryl Kilmer, founder and CEO of TERI, points out new features of the now-under-construction, 20-acre TERI Campus of Life from the top floor of the San Marcos property’s new vocational center.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The 20-acre TERI Campus of Life will become a regional hub for youth and adults on the autism spectrum

It’s been nearly two decades since the Oceanside nonprofit TERI purchased 20 acres in San Marcos for its Campus of Life — a community hub that would one day provide extensive recreation, education and career-training services to people on the autism spectrum and with other disabilities.

Unfortunately, that day has been a long time coming, due to the Great Recession, a global pandemic and the challenges of raising money for a project whose building costs grow as the years pass. But lately, the construction pace at TERI Campus of Life in Twin Oaks Valley has accelerated.

In September, a two-story vocational center was completed on the property at 555 Deer Springs Road that includes a quick-service restaurant that’s now open to the public. And this fall, construction will begin on a large performing and fine arts center that will include a 205-seat theater.

Rod Koelewyn buys coffee from Patrick Nuzum at Common Grounds Cafe & Coffee Bar.
Customer Rod Koelewyn makes a coffee purchase from employee Patrick Nuzum at Common Grounds Cafe & Coffee Bar at TERI Campus of Life in San Marcos.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Still to come are a health and wellness center, an aquatics center and a culinary training institute. There will also be a 6.5-acre organic farm, an administration building, a children’s day-care center, a day school and a technology learning academy. These buildings will join the campus’ first structure, a therapeutic equestrian center that opened on the property in 2015.

Cheryl Kilmer, CEO and co-founder of TERI — an acronym for Training Education and Resource Institute — said if all goes well with fundraising, the $70 million project could be complete in three years. So far, they’ve raised $23 million, so there’s still a long way to go.

Standing Thursday morning on the second-floor balcony of the new Tom and Mary Tomlinson Vocational Center, Kilmer looked out over the large construction site and pointed out where each new building will stand. Although she’s realistic about the challenges of fundraising, she’s optimistic about reaching the finish line in the not-too-distant future.

“Everything we do here is about quality of life,” Kilmer said. “It’s what everyone deserves, but no one deserves it more than our guys. They need a future that’s secure. The biggest fear our parents have is what will happen to their children when they’re gone.”

James Loop gets a shoulder rub from Instruction Aid Emma Chavez at TERI Campus of Life.
At the Respite Camp area of the TERI Campus Of Life in San Marcos, 14-year-old client James Loop gets a shoulder rub from Instruction Aid Emma Chavez.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

TERI serves about 900 clients each month in San Diego County, ranging in age from toddlers to seniors. Once the Campus of Life is complete, TERI can triple the number of clients it serves, and it can expand the organization’s services from six hours each weekday to morning-to-night programming seven days a week.

Although TERI exists to serve people with disabilities, Kilmer said Campus of Life is being built for the community at large, to help integrate this often-marginalized population with the general public.

“Everything here is designed as a community resource,” she said. “It’s a sustainable and healthy way to introduce our population to the community.”

Instructional aide Keith Houston works on a craft project with Brodie Head, 11, and Zoey Head.
At the Respite Camp area at TERI Campus Of Life, instructional Aid Keith Houston works on a craft project with clients Brodie Head, 11, and his sister Zoey Head, 10.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In the beginning

TERI was founded in Oceanside in 1980 with the goal of not only improving the lives of children and adults with developmental and learning disabilities, but also changing the way the world sees these individuals by encouraging inclusion within the community.

In 1970, Kilmer was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Michigan when she first began working with disabled people. Her first client was Yvette Champagne, a 5-year-old quadriplegic girl with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Yvette was living at the time in a state hospital, where conditions were so terrible, Kilmer made it her life goal to depopulate state-run institutions and move these individuals into traditional neighborhoods.

By 21, she was running her own 10-resident group home. Then after graduate school, she ran a company that managed group housing in Michigan. She moved to San Diego in 1976 and spent three years with a similar company in Pacific Beach. But after three years there, she felt the company wasn’t doing enough for its clients, so she left with two co-workers in 1980 and they started TERI.

Teri Campus Of Life client Dylan Heald, 8, goes for a ride on Winnie the horse at the  therapeutic equestrian center.
Teri Campus Of Life client Dylan Heald, 8, goes for a morning ride on “Winnie” at the facility’s therapeutic equestrian center. At left is his Instructional aide, Angelica Valle. At back right is riding instructor Amy Saydoff and at front right is volunteer Kathy Andrews.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Today, TERI runs 12 group homes, each housing six individuals, in La Costa, Oceanside, Carlsbad, San Marcos, Vista and Fallbrook. People of similar ages, abilities and temperaments are housed together. The home in Fallbrook has housed the same six men, most on the autism spectrum and all nonverbal, for 41 years.

Demand for beds far outstrips supply. More than 100 families from all over the country are on the waiting list to secure a room for a loved one in a group home, but Kilmer said that the wait can last for years.

Back in the early days, most of the grant money TERI obtained came from government grants. Nowadays, it’s virtually all private funding from individuals and foundations. Many of TERI’s donors are families who have seen the lives of their disabled family member transformed through the types of education, fitness and support programs that TERI offers.

Because of the novel service work TERI was doing for people with disabilities in the early 1980s, the state of California cited it as a model program. Since then, TERI has become a training resource for state, national and international groups aiming to improve disability services, particularly for those on the autism spectrum.

Chefs Paul Balbuena, left, and Dan Cannon prepare meals at TERI Campus of Life.
In the kitchen at the TERI Campus Of Life’s vocational center, chef Paul Balbuena, left, and food and beverage director Dan Cannon prepare meals.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

TERI Campus of Life was created to serve as a model that can be built anywhere in the world. Just a few months ago, a group of 15 doctors from Brazil visited the campus to gather information on creating similar service programs for Brazilians on the spectrum, Kilmer said.

Besides offering specialized training, education and residential programs for individuals, TERI has a sustainability and organic living ethos.

All 12 group homes have organic gardens that provide about 80 percent of the residents’ produce needs. The first acre of the 6.5-acre organic farm will be planted this fall at the Campus of Life. And TERI also runs an organic microgreens farm in Oceanside that sells its produce to 20 local restaurants.

As part of its sustainability commitment, TERI operates 20 income-producing businesses, with all proceeds going toward operations. These include the microgreens farm, a resale clothing shop, a special needs life-coaching certificate program, speech and language therapy classes and facility rentals.

Items for sale at Sheri's Unique Boutique in the new vocational Center at TERI Campus of Life in San Marcos.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The newest businesses, located at Campus of Life, are the Common Grounds Café & Coffee Bar and Sheri’s Unique Boutique, which sells artwork and candy made by TERI clients, as well as TERI’s bottled and jarred seasonings and sauces. The café serves coffee, house-baked pastries, sandwiches and salads, as well as plated entrees, wines and beer in the evenings. Hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays.

TERI also just launched an internship program offering year-round training for clients in the Common Grounds kitchen and at the equestrian center.

An artist's rendering of the TERI Campus of Life in San Marcos.
An artist’s rendering of the TERI Campus of Life in San Marcos, which is midway through construction.
(TERI)

A closer look

Here’s an overview of the TERI Campus of Life, including what’s now open and what’s to come:

  • Harriet E. Pfleger Therapeutic Equestrian Center: Opened in 2015, this 2-acre ranch has seven horses and two miniature horses, Jack and Jill, offering riding lessons that improve clients’ independence, self-esteem, patience, confidence, muscle tone and strength.
  • Tom & Mary Tomlinson Vocational Center: Open since September, this two-story, 8,400-square-foot building includes the Common Grounds Café, Sheri’s boutique, a commercial-grade kitchen, indoor and outdoor event and conference space and art exhibits.
The planned Zable Fine Arts and Performing Arts center at TERI Campus of Life.
The planned Zable Fine Arts and Performing Arts center at TERI Campus of Life in San Marcos.
(TERI)

  • Zable Performing Arts & Fine Arts Building: Breaking ground this fall, these buildings include a 205-seat theater, drama, recording, music and dressing rooms, art and ceramic studios and two multisensory rooms.
  • Founders Center: This 22,000-square-foot administration building will consolidate all of TERI’s operations staff, now mostly in Oceanside, in one location.
  • Health & Wellness Center, Aquatics Center & Verna Harrah Culinary Institute: This 25,812-square-foot, three-building project will include an Olympic-size pool, indoor café, therapy rooms, locker rooms and sauna.
  • Dr. Bronner’s Country Day School & Learning Academy: The day school will be a 7,780-square-foot education center with six tech-friendly classrooms, a speech therapy center and science lab for students ages 5 to 22. The 15,908-square-foot learning academy will have 18 tech-enhanced classrooms where students from 20 local school districts can learn job skills in fields such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and 3D printing.
  • Bornemann Family Child Development Center: This 2,700-square-foot center will provide daycare for infants and toddlers up to age 5, with and without disabilities.
  • Merriam House: This historic Victorian farmhouse has been on the property since 1889. Under the terms of its land purchase, TERI will restore and preserve the house for future generations.
The 1889-era Merriam House on the TERI Campus Of Life property in the Twin Oaks Valley area of San Marcos.
The 1889-era Merriam House on the TERI Campus Of Life property in the Twin Oaks Valley area of San Marcos.
(Charlie Neuman/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)


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