Sweetwater Spectrum names Deirdre Sheerin CEO/Executive Director
Deirdre Sheerin is a teacher, an artist, a marathon runner and a leader of wilderness trips. She has worked in classrooms with children who are autistic and learning-disabled, and in the boardrooms of non-profit organizations, government and business.
But she sees her new role as CEO/executive director of Sweetwater Spectrum as that of a builder. The Sweetwater Spectrum is an innovative residential living community for autistic adults that is being built in Sonoma on 2.9 acres of land at the corner of Fifth Street West and Spain Street. The project breaks ground Sept. 10 and will be completed within a year.
“I have really high hopes for the Sweetwater model being a solution to a huge problem we are going to have to face as a nation,” said Sheerin. “An incredible amount of research, innovation and compassion has gone into designing it. I’m a builder, and now my job is to take all this brilliance and build it into a real community.”
That challenge, and the opportunity to meet it in her adopted hometown of 10 years, is a dream come true for Sheerin.
“For crying out loud, this is my community,” she said. “I love it. And now I have this chance to deepen my relationship by helping create something that is unique and positive – for the community of Sweetwater and for the larger community of Sonoma.”
Sheerin began her career as a special education teacher and taught in private and public schools in Missouri, New York, Massachusetts and California. It was a calling she heard early in life, and in high school she began volunteering in special education classrooms.
But her desires for continued learning and the chance to make a difference in leadership roles eventually led her to master’s degree studies in organizational development at Sonoma State University.
She has since held executive positions at a number of non-profit organizations, including Zonta Services, a pioneering school serving children with autism in San Jose. Later she served as education program coordinator for the Family Life Center in Petaluma and executive director of Image for Success in San Rafael.
She had been working as an independent organization development consultant for a variety of non-profit and business clients when she learned about Sweetwater Spectrum.
“I saw this opportunity and I knew: This is it for me,” she said.
She was immediately attracted to the program because “it is innovative, unique and ahead of the curve. It’s about choice, and putting autistic people in a position to have more control over the way they live their lives. Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy choice and some control over your life. This is a very inherent, human need.
“There was nothing more powerful for me in my life than when I was able to purchase my house. I am very proud of it and have put my personality into my home. Our residents are going to be able to do the same things.”
Not only that, “They will be in a community at Sweetwater that can help them make choices and find purpose in them, and they will have some ability to meet them more broadly in the larger Sonoma community. That’s fundamental to this whole concept.’’
Sheerin is eager to find ways to allow residents to participate in the surrounding community, whether through jobs, day programs or involvement in Sonoma’s farmers markets.
“I want to leverage the fact that I have been in the community for 10 years, my love for this community and my history to introduce and lead the way for Sonoma to get involved. I want to be able to integrate Sweetwater Spectrum into the Sonoma community by encouraging hiring by businesses, and at the same time encouraging volunteers to become part of the Sweetwater community.
“We have the leadership in our community to help us bring this incredible opportunity to fruition, and it will be my job to reach out to make those connections and links.”