When Debbie Picker was in elementary school, she knew she wanted to be a teacher.
At Mayfield High School, on the track for college, she found herself quite bored.
“I had a really gifted guidance counselor,” said Picker, who suggested she work as an aide for students in the special education room. The job was generally slotted for students on the vocational path. “He started me there, even though I was college track.”
Something clicked for her in that setting.
“That was my decision,” she said. “Once I was in that classroom and knew that’s what I wanted to do, there was no looking back.”
When she graduated from high school, there were only two universities in Ohio that offered the major she wanted: Bowling Green State University and Kent State University. Picker chose Bowling Green.
The year was 1975, and Congress had just passed Public Act PL94-142, which required public schools to educate those with moderate to severe disabilities.
“It was an emerging area in 1975,” she said.
Still, Bowling Green’s program for teachers was well established, Picker remembered.
Picker taught for 35 years in Mentor, Cleveland Heights and Mayfield public schools. In addition, she worked as an inclusion facilitator, ensuring that students with disabilities were included in regular classrooms.
Picker’s choice of profession turned out to be helpful in her family life. Her second child was born with Down syndrome.
“It just was preparation for real life,” she said of her chosen career path. Shortly after her third child was born, she learned of a child born with Down syndrome in Israel who had been abandoned in the hospital. Picker adopted that child as well.
“My life was already changed,” she said.
In 2017, two years after retiring from teaching, Picker founded Fare-Cle, a nonprofit charitable transportation company for people age 14 and older with disabilities or early-stage dementia. The company has a dozen drivers who work weekdays and weekends providing safe, reliable transportation to people who may not be able to navigate through the system to make a call to an online ride service such as Uber or Lyft. The transportation company responds to the needs of the population Picker has served by filling an unmet need.
Today, in addition to running Fare-CLE, Picker volunteers with Jewish Family Service Association’s YouthAbility program, which prepares young adults with disabilities to work through volunteer opportunities. She also volunteers with Jewish Family Service Association’s Alyson’s Place Medical Clinic.
She also works as the medical outreach coordinator for Up Side of Downs of Northeast Ohio in Independence.
“I get so much from all of that,” she said. “I feel like I get more than I give. I love the population I work with.”
Picker’s childhood synagogue was Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood. She now belongs to Kol HaLev, Cleveland’s Reconstructionist Community, in Pepepr Pike, which meets at the Ratner Day School and she is an associate member of Congregation Shaarey Tikvah in Beachwood. Because she enjoys Torah study, she also frequently attends “Toast and Torah Talks” at Corky & Lenny’s in Woodmere.
“The people are what’s really the best part of the whole thing.”
– Jane Kaufman