Oct 16, 2018 | Purpose

Cheryl Kilmer is a leader on a mission. At the age of 17, Kilmer was a psychology student working at a state hospital for children near Ann Arbor, Michigan. What she saw there was horrifying — children were being warehoused, neglected, and forgotten. One such child, Yvette Champagne, sat motionless all day in wooden wheelchair with no physical stimulation, no encouragement to build social skills, and no hope. Yvette had cerebral palsy. She also had a bald spot on the back of her head from rubbing against her wheelchair.

“The only good thing about Yvette’s life was her name,” recalls Kilmer blinking back tears as she reflected on that transformative experience. “I wasn’t able to save her, but I knew that, as a society, we could do so much more for children like Yvette and others who suffer from disabilities.”

Fast forward to San Diego over four decades later. Kilmer and her team of more than 500 dedicated professionals and volunteers serve over 850 children and adults with developmental disabilities. They do this through the nonprofit called TERI (for Technology, Education, Research, and Innovation). Led by their enigmatic founder and CEO, TERI has been recognized as a model for delivering the highest standard of care and uncompromising quality of life to its clients.

That level of care cannot come soon enough for many families. With a 200% increase in the diagnosis of autism in the last decade, the need for quality services and programs dedicated to the developmentally disabled falls far short of the need. It is a need that extends far beyond San Diego. 1.2 million children are born with congenital disabilities in China alone each year. Delegations from China and many other countries around the world have heard of TERI’s success, which they are eager to replicate in their own countries.

Doing so, according to the indefatigable Kilmer, means first building a campus where TERI’s quality standards can be centralized and codified before they can be scaled. Today, TERI offers everything from speech programs and vocational support to equestrian therapy and performing arts productions. These services are provided from several locations strung primarily along north San Diego County. When it comes to tackling the physical, mental, and emotional needs of its clients, no challenge is too big for TERI’s team. But Kilmer’s vision far exceeds the local impact that TERI is providing. “We can do better, and we can teach others to do better,” says Kilmer.

TERI’s Campus of Life, a 20-acre site nestled in the warm hills of San Marcos, California, is the launching pad for global impact. With the help of over $13 million in community donations, TERI purchased the site and completed a state-of-the-art therapeutic equestrian center. Today, clients learn to trust the world around them and build confidence in their own talents and strengths while interacting with and caring for a stable of six horses.

The next phase of the Campus of Life is the key to unlocking Kilmer’s ultimate vision – to build the world’s first place where the entire community can learn, create and thrive side-by-side. When completed, the master plan will include 111,000 square feet of facilities for a theatre, art studios, galleries, music production studios, all available for use by both clients and the community. A fitness and wellness complex with three pools will be key to emphasizing the active lifestyle that is crucial to TERI’s emphasis on health and self-esteem.

It’s an ambitious plan that requires vision, an uncompromising commitment to quality, and tenacity on the part of Kilmer, her team, and the community. The Campus of Life will be Kilmer’s legacy inspired by the memory of one little girl who spent her days in a wooden wheelchair. As a result, millions of lives around the world will be improved for decades to come. Yvette Champagne would have loved it.

If you would like to learn more about TERI and how you can help by donating your time, talent, or treasure, contact development@teriinc.org.

Question: Can the story of two girls who met in a mental institution in the 1970’s forever change the world for millions?


Driven by the premise that excellence is the result of aligning people, purpose and performance, Center for Executive Excellence facilitates training in leading self, leading teams and leading organizations. To learn more, subscribe to receive CEE News!



Related Posts

5 TED Talks for Leaders Who are Lifelong Learners

5 TED Talks for Leaders Who are Lifelong Learners

I’m kicking off August a two-week vacation in Amsterdam, a city that effortlessly merges history with innovation, art with technology, and tradition with progress. As I wander through picturesque canals and vibrant streets, I find myself reflecting on the importance of lifelong learning, especially for leaders.

read more



Preferred method of contact:

*Required fields. By submitting this form you agree to receive emails from Center for Executive Excellence and can unsubscribe at any time.

Share This