Photo by Heather Middleton
By Joel Hall
Helping people help themselves has come naturally to Dorothy Cochran, who spent 30 years helping to develop many of Clayton County's earliest programs to assist the physically and mentally disabled. But after 10-and-a-half years as director of WORKTEC, Clayton County Public Schools' workforce development program for the disabled, Cochran will retire at the end of the month.
Cochran, who grew up in Memphis, Tenn., as one of eight siblings, knew from a young age she wanted to be a social worker. She said her desire to help people comes from her late mother, Louise Young, a homemaker who opened her home to almost anyone in need.
"I grew up in a small community," Cochran said. "She [Young] had an innate way of helping people be the best that they could be. If someone was hungry, if somebody needed somebody to talk to, if somebody was sick at home and needed somebody to take their kids to school, she would do it. From a young age, I've always wanted to help people."
Cochran said she attended Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) on a full scholarship and earned a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1971. From there, she attended the University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration and received a master's degree in social casework in 1973.
Later in 1973, Cochran said she became a unit social worker with what was then known as the Georgia Retardation Center. There, she was responsible for assessing the emotional and physical needs of clients and their families and identifying appropriate services.
In 1979, Cochran was brought onto the staff of the Clayton County Mental Health Center, now known as the Clayton Community Services Board. The program, which provides an array of services to help the disabled live and thrive in Clayton County, was only a few years old at the time, she said.
"Clayton County, during that time, was very innovative," Cochran said. "It [the program] was about doing whatever it took to keep people from being institutionalized and [helping them stay] in the community. They were very exciting times because you could see how you were impacting the lives of people directly."
Cochran said that as the mental health center's first client services coordinator, she developed the center's first Comprehensive Evaluation Team, which assessed the needs of clients in the community and made recommendations on possible treatment plans. She said she also developed the center's Family Support Program, which secured financial support for families of the disabled and helped pay for things such as adult diapers for the incontinent, food, and walking aids.
In the early 1990s, Cochran said she helped implement the mental health center's Chronically Mentally Ill program, which provided case management, crisis support, rehabilitation services, and medication management for those with severe mental illnesses.
In 1999, Cochran was appointed as the director of WORKTEC, which assists those with a wide array of mental and physical disabilities, and helps them integrate into the workforce. The program provides skills assessments, workforce training, and job placement, among other services, she said.
When Cochran started, WORKTEC was a $2.8 million operation which served 458 individuals, according to Cochran. Since then, the organization has blossomed into a $10.3 million operation serving 837 individuals with disabilities, she said.
Debbie Walker-Lass, specialist manager with WORKTEC for 11-and-a-half years, worked under Cochran for 10 years at the Clayton Community Services Board. She said WORKTEC has grown through Cochran's ability to lead and advocate "gracefully."
"She is the epitome of encouragement and integrity," Walker-Lass said. "She is really encouraging and gives her staff the flexibility to be creative. That is really important in the developmental disabilities industry. Doing things the same way all the time isn't always the way to motivate people.
"What's never changed is that she puts the interest of the people we serve in the forefront," she continued. "She is very concerned about people with disabilities having the right to live where they would like and work where they would like ... the same things all of us want. She's very persistent, but graceful in her advocacy efforts."
Cochran, who will turn 60 in January, said she is retiring to spend more time with her six grandchildren, become more active in her church and the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and travel. However, she said she will remain active on several volunteer boards -- such as the boards of the United Way of Butts, Clayton, and Henry Counties and the Southern Regional Medical Center Foundation -- and with groups such as the Clayton County Rotary Club and Clayton County Probate Court Judge Pam Ferguson's Mental Health Coalition.
The ultimate goal of the Mental Health Coalition is to create a Mental Health Court which can serve as a deferment program for those with mental disabilities who find themselves caught up in the judicial system.
Cochran said she remains dedicated to the employment and dignity of those with disabilities.
"Most people are looking for a way to feel good about themselves, to grow, and develop," she said. "I feel work, employment, is a very important part of anyone's existence. We have stories of people being able to get their first home or first car through the employment they have gotten at WORKTEC.
"Treating people with dignity and respect is one of the most important things you can do in life," she added. "Employment is a good way for people to feel good about themselves and to provide for their own needs."
WORKTEC will host a retirement ceremony for Cochran on Thursday afternoon at Clayton County Public Schools' Professional Learning Center on Battle Creek Road in Jonesboro. For more information, contact Pam Schaf at (770) 472-7675.