Inland Regional Center – Board of Trustees

One Solution Provider's Plea To The Public In Wake Of San Bernardino Tragedy

bySteven Burke on December 16, 2015, 5:08 pm EST

Solution provider Keith Nelson and his son, Ryan Nelson, spent the Sunday after the San Bernardino terrorist attack doing the same thing they do every week: attending the 11:45 am service at the Sandals Church in Riverside, Calif.

The emotional outpouring of love and support at the service provided some comfort for both Keith Nelson, who is vice president of the board of trustees at the Inland Regional Center where 14 people were killed and 21 were wounded in a mass shooting, and for Ryan Nelson, who has Asperger's syndrome, and is one of the beneficiaries of the services administered by the center. "It helps a lot to know the people in your immediate community are caring and want to reach out and help at a time like this," said Keith Nelson, who arrived at the center for a subcommittee meeting of the board just as the police were responding to the shooting. "For me, it is comforting to know that the church is a resource to help consumers of the Inland Regional Center."

[Related:San Bernardino Shooting: VAR With Ties To Developmentally Disabled Community Expresses Concern, Anger]

The 57-year-old Keith Nelson and his 32-year-old son have been attending services at Sandals, which has a special needs ministry, for the last five years. Ryan Nelson is a greeter at the church, welcoming members as they arrive for the service. "Looking people in the eye and greeting them is a big growth step for Ryan," said Keith Nelson. "A lot of people don't understand that. Ryan really feels a sense of community being there. He is not just in the special needs ministry."

After the service each week, Ryan Nelson, who works on a grounds keeping crew during the week, buys his dad breakfast. That's a wonderful moment each and every week for Ryan Nelson, who has been earning his own paycheck for the last 14 years. "I am so proud of him," says Keith Nelson. "He's my hero.

Keith Nelson makes his living as a vice president of technology for Vistem Solutions Inc., a highly regarded managed services provider based in Irvine,Calif., but his passion is battling for what he calls those with "different abilities," like his son.

A member of the Riverside Unified School District for Special Needs and the City Commission For Disabilities, Keith Nelson spends countless hours each and every week mentoring and coaching those with different abilities. For the last 20 years, he has coached basketball, floor hockey, track and field and softball for the Special Olympics. The term "special,"  by the way, is one that he resents, as it places a label on the athletes that denotes abilities below those of other athletes. "You can't have inclusion and be called 'special,'" he says. "They are not special. They are amazing."

When Keith Nelson started coaching Special Olympics, some were taken aback when he ignored requests not to keep score. "They know the score," he responded. "We might as well put it on the board. They are not stupid. They just process things differently. In order to learn to win,  you have to learn to lose."

That competitive spirit has been instilled into the athletes coached by Nelson, who boasts that his basketball team – which features athletes that dunk and drive hard to the basket  – can put a whooping on many a high school varsity basketball team. "My attitude is if you are going to do it, you might as well win," he says. "My basketball team has not lost a game in 15 years."

Members of Keith Nelson's basketball team, in fact, have won the Nike 3On3 Tournament at the Staples Center five years in a row. When Terrell Owens, the renowned pro football wide receiver, saw Nelson's basketball team, he couldn't believe they were Special Olympic athletes. Owens asked to take a picture with the team. "They are incredibly awesome athletes," says Nelson. "I always tell them that a developmental disability has nothing to do with playing basketball. You can jump and dunk."

Two years ago, when Nelson found his floor hockey team out of shape even as they were set to go to the World Games in Korea, he inspired them to lose collectively 400 pounds in two months. He not only teaches his athletes to compete like the dickens, but to give back. So when the athletes use a city pool for a swim program, Nelson makes them do a city cleanup program. "We just don't ask for things," he tells his athletes. "We give back. You can't just be sitting there with your hand out."

Keith Nelson suffered a stroke at the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics World Game in Los Angeles in July. He checked out of the hospital after two days to give a motivational speech to Team Sweden at the Special Olympic Games.

With one of his customers, Nelson has also started a non-profit called Uniquely Special, which provides Apple iPads for local high school students. He sees the iPad as the ultimate "inclusion and social" tool for those with different abilities. Using the iPad, Nelson sees those students becoming reporters for the student paper, writing up high school football games and using social media to communicate about school events. "I am into inclusion and social," says Nelson. "This helps these students become more mainstream."

Juggling Work And Mentoring Those With Different Abilities

Nelson has managed to juggle both the demands of volunteer work and his managed service provider business, delivering what has been widely recognized in the solution provider community as breakthrough technology solutions.

One of Vistem's biggest technology game-changers is its innovative design for the dispatch system for the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – the busiest ports in the nation. "Since 1999, we have dispatched every longshoreman to his job from the dispatch hall without ever missing a dispatch or loss of data," says Keith Nelson.

This year Vistem Solutions was also selected as the technical architect for the new Dispatch Hall for the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the Watchman Dispatch System. In addition, the company was the technical advisor and exclusive technology vendor for the remodel of the new Riverside Convention Center.

Key to his success as a technology solution architect is the ability to "listen" to customers and then design a system for how the business works rather than how the technology works, Nelson says. "Far too often technology architects are busy creating solutions for the incorrect problem," he says. That ability to listen has also been key to his success as a coach mentoring those with different abilities, he says.

Nelson  says he is grateful through all the trauma of the tragedy to have a business partner, Rodney Shook, who is always there to help keep the business firing on all cylinders. "I am lucky to have a very good partner," he says. "Rodney and I are polar opposites, which probably makes us good partners. He does contracts, pays bills, deals with vendors, and I design systems and solutions."

Fighting For Funding To Make Those With Different Abilities Successful

Keith Nelson sees many politicians that are "unmotivated and uninterested" in helping those with different abilities. He has seen first-hand the benefits a job provides adults like his son. Ryan Nelson got his first paycheck when he was 18 years old – just three weeks out of high school and has been working full time since then. For Nelson, the political response to the terrorist attack has been less than inspiring. The political apathy surrounding those with different abilities – who lack the political clout of organized labor and special interest groups -  is a fact of life that Nelson is used to given his role as an activist fighting for inclusion for those  different abilities like his son.

Nelson is particularly frustrated by the lack of political support for programs that put people  with different abilities to work.He has seen first hand the benefits a job provides adults like his son. When Ryan got his first paycheck when he was 18-years-old, he paid for a Mother's Day lunch. "I was so proud," says Keith Nelson."These work programs are a big deal, and there are people in the federal government trying to stop them."

There are 280,000 individuals with special abilities in the state of California, served by thousands of counselors and administrators at 21 regional centers. The Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino covers the largest population of those with different abilities and the largest geographic footprint in the state. The San Bernardino Center services 32,000 consumers with different abilities with just 550  counselors, administrators and support staff.

Their dedication comes even as they face a state legislature that seems determined to dismantle the landmark legislation known as the The Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Act, a California law that gives people with different abilities the "right to services and support that enables them to live a more independent and normal life" and includes funding for job programs and other services. The law bears the name of California Assembly member Frank Lanterman, who first proposed the legislation in 1973 and finally got it passed four years later.

California, once a leader in spending to help those with different abilities, is now near the bottom of the list of all the 50 states, Nelson says. The low rate of funding comes in spite of the fact that California case loads are among the highest in the country.

"We have had a real issue in California," says Nelson. "The  Lanterman Act is basically being dismantled. Our funding was cut back by 10 percent in the recession eight years ago and has never been returned or increased. Group homes are closing because they are underfunded. At the same time, we don't see anyone at the federal level helping us either. Now is the time for our elected officials to step up and support The Lanterman Act."

The Trauma Of The Shooting For Those With Different Abilities

Nelson has been heartened at how those with different abilities have reached out to one another in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack. "When you seek to inspire, you are often inspired," he says. "These individuals inspire me.They don't deal in prejudice or profiling. They support each other."

Two weeks after the shooting, the Inland Regional Center is still closed making it difficult to provide services to those with different abilities. The Friday night after the shooting there was supposed to be a Christmas dance for those with different abilities at the Inland Regional Center. "Many of our consumers are asking when are we going to have the dance," Nelson says. "They are looking for some return to normalcy that helps their world become stable. Stability is so important."

One of Vistem Solutions' customers – The Riverside Convention Center – has stepped up and offered to host the dance. "We are just waiting for the crises team to give us the go ahead," he said. Beyond the dance, there was a toy drive and food drive that was supposed to take place place at the Inland Regional Center which is not taking place this year as a result of the terrorist attack. Nelson is asking for funding assistance from around the country for holiday food baskets and toys for underprivileged children.

"We are looking for gift cards for food and possible toys to provide nearly 500 underprivileged consumers," he says. "Anyone that wants to help should send the donations to a funding page on the Inland Regional Center web site [4]. We greatly appreciate the help during this difficult time. We have to figure out a way to continue to give to our consumers in the wake of the tragedy."

Nelson is also asking that citizens contact federal and state legislators for increased funding for those with different abilities. In California, he is working to get the 10 percent funding that was cut some 12 years ago restored along with five percent annual increases. "We need to ensure that funding and service rates at both the federal and state levels are sustainable for these amazing individuals," he said.

In the most recent California state budget, teachers and prison guards got wage increases, but those with different abilities  got "crushed," says Nelson.  "Why are we not helping the part of our society that needs it the most?" he asked.

It's a question that Nelson hopes citizens and  elected officials will  consider in the wake of the San Bernardino tragedy. "It has been a tough few years for those with different abilities, and this tragedy hasn't helped," he says.