Board of Directors Roster

Board of Directors

Photo of Jeffrey Thom

Jeffrey Thom

President

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Executive Committee

Jeff Thom has been an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities for more than four decades. After graduating with a B.A. in political science from Willamette University, he received a law degree from Stanford University. He then spent a year working for what is now Disability Rights Legal Center, before joining California Office of Legislative Counsel, where he has Principal Deputy Legislative Counsel overseeing drafting bills and legal opinions in health and human services.

He has been and is currently active with both National & state organization boards, including California Council of the Blind, American Council of the Blind, Sacramento Society of the Blind, National Disability Advisory Council for Centene, and Sacramento Regional Transit Mobility Council.

Jeff, who was born blind, is married and a parent to both biological and foster children. He is also a grandparent and host-parent to 10 foreign exchange students.

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Sandra Smith

Chair

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Executive, Office of Clients’ Rights Advocacy (OCRA), Program and Planning (P&P) (Chair), Nominating

Sandra has a B.A. in Child Development and certificates in culture and diversity, clinical, social, and behavioral compliance.

Sandra has been active with several organizations and boards, including Behavioral Health Action, UC Davis institutional review board, California State Council on Developmental Disabilities (SCDD).

Sandra Smith describes herself as a “seasoned disability consumer, parent, and child advocate trainer.” She is the parent of 36-year-old Chad, an artist who is autistic and African American. “Autism and being a black male can create many civil rights concerns.” She is passionate about helping families in need of advocacy, particularly as it related to intellectual developmental disabilities.

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Deaka McClain

Secretary

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Executive, Office of Clients’ Rights Advocacy (OCRA), Program and Planning (P&P)

Deaka has a B.S in journalism from Cal State Long Beach and received her Master's Degree in Public Administration and two graduate certificates in urban Executive Management and Employer-Employee Relations and Personnel Management.

Deaka has been active with several organizations and boards, including the Citizens Advisory Commission on Disabilities, Harbor Regional Center Client Advisory, and LA Care Health Plan.

She was born with cerebral palsy and weighed just a pound-and-a-half. Doctors were not sure if she would live. Because of her background, Deaka has made it her mission to tell her story – including her advocacy work that began in college when she advocated for reasonable accommodations.

Her motto in life is, “She lives her life with the mindset of making a difference and being a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

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James “Jim” Janz

CFO

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Executive, Finance (Chair), Legislation

Jim Janz holds degrees in Civil Engineering and Urban Planning, and a J.D. and MBA from the University of Chicago. He has an extensive background in public service, serving on the Planning Commission and City Council for Atherton, California, including serving twice as mayor.

He has been involved with many organizations and boards, including the San Francisco Hearing and Speech Center and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Jim became involved in the disability community when he & his wife Kathy were told their son was developmentally delayed, and their family had to advocate for their son’s rights.

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Ralph Black

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Executive, Legislation (Chair), Finance, Nominating

Ralph Black, who has been blind since childhood, became interested in disability rights as a student at California State University Long Beach and then also graduated from Loyola University Law School. He later worked in the Legal Affairs Division, Chancellor’s Office for California Community Colleges, where he worked as Assistant General Counsel and then as General Counsel.

Along with his success include that he and other students successfully led an advocacy campaign to have the Legislature provide public funding to support programs for students with disabilities at all public colleges and universities in California. His advocacy work eventually led to an invitation to the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Since then, Ralph has been active in several disability rights organizations, including Californians with Disability Rights, the State Bar Committee for Legal Professionals with Disabilities, and the Association of California State Employees with Disabilities.

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Alison Brunner

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals (PAIMI), Program and Planning (P&P)

Alison Brunner is the CEO of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, a leading nonprofit that uses the law to address social injustices like poverty, inequity, discrimination, and child abuse and neglect. The Law Foundation provides free legal services to over 10,000 low-income people annually in three areas of critical need – housing, health, and children – in addition to engaging in a wide-range of systems change work.

As a disability and housing rights attorney, Alison has fought for access to justice and equity for all members of our community for almost 25 years. She obtained her bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles, and juris doctor degree from Santa Clara University Law School.

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Lorraine Casto

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Executive, Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals (PAIMI) (Co-Chair)

Lorraine received a B.A. in Economics from San Jose State University and graduated from Santa Clara University School of Law in 2005. She is currently a lawyer in private practice at a major international law firm where she handles business litigation matters for her clients and serves on her office’s pro bono committee. She works with Disability Rights California and other legal service organizations to provide pro bono representation to Californians in need.

Lorraine has an adult son with cerebral palsy, a daughter with mental health disabilities, and a daughter who works as an emergency room nurse. Lorraine continues to advocate on behalf of her children, which sparked her interest in helping others in the disability community.

She lives with her husband and son in Campbell, California, and enjoys spending time with her granddaughter and family.

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Charles “Chuck” Ehrlich

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Legislation, Program and Planning (P&P)

At the University of California, Berkeley, Chuck graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and Boalt Hall School of Law. After the 101 California gun killings of 1993 in San Francisco, Chuck was the originating founder of Legal Community Against Violence (now the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence), the leading national authority on the legal aspects of firearms issues.

He is a lawyer and business executive with extensive experience in private practice and a senior-level in-house legal counselor.

Chuck Ehrlich's interest in disability issues grows from the experiences of his younger daughter, Jennifer, who has had a chronic disabling illness since junior high school leading to his interest in the challenges faced by those whose disabilities are "invisible."

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Sheri Farinha

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Finance, Legislation

Sheri Farinha is a nationally known civil rights activist on behalf of deaf and hard of hearing people. She has been the CEO for NorCal Services for Deaf & Hard of Hearing for more than 25 years. She graduated from California State University, Northridge, with a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts, and a Master’s Degree in Special Education-Deaf focus.

Sheri began her activism more than 35 years ago. She assisted in passing SB 1211 which provides dates for testing a new Text-to-911 service in California. She served as president of the California Association of the Deaf and was the DeafLife Deaf Person of the Year in 2012. Sheri is responsible for facilitating the creation of the Disaster Response Interpreter (DRI) curriculum after speaking with the late Richard Devylder, Director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Recently this training became very important during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Elizabeth “Liz” Gomez

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Office of Clients’ Rights Advocacy (OCRA), Program and Planning (P&P)

Elizabeth received her B.S. from Woodbury University and then graduating from the California Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (CA-LEND) Program and the West Side Regional Center Partners in Policymaking Team of Advocates.

Her advocacy efforts are most recently through her company, Mindwalk LLC, and as the founder of the Community Outreach Integrators/Integrators Program, addressing disparities within the California regional center system.

Elizabeth is a parent and a dedicated advocate. She is committed to working tirelessly to impact change within underserved communities through advocacy, training, and empowerment. She lives in West Los Angeles with her husband Fernando and their sons, 11-year-old Oscar Antonio, who has Down Syndrome, and 9-year-old Diego Antonio.

Photo of Sherrie Nuyen-Kariotis

Imari S. Nuyen-Kariotis

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Executive, Finance, Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals (PAIMI) (Co-Chair)

Imari S. Nuyen-Kariotis is a life-long disability rights advocate, having both professional and personal connections to the disability community and disability policy researcher, focusing on federal, state, and local issues related to housing, transportation, public access, and emergency management. Imari went to college to become a Paralegal. Imari is a primary caregiver and is the Chair of the Imperial County Political Council where we are advocating for and responding to the rights and needs of people with disabilities and seniors, their caretakers and empowering the community-wide resilience, and optimizing outcomes for all.

Imari is a multiple disabled women (intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities) who has Autism and Bipolar Disorder. Imari is a bi-sexual activist of color, with grassroots organizing experience on the local, state, and national levels. To help ensure those in marginalized communities, especially those who are multiply marginalized, are heard. Imari has dedicated her life advocating to end the institutional bias, and making systems change that allows all people with disabilities to have the right to live in the community with the services and supports needed to live independently- just as her daughter Caurel has been able to for the past 29+ years. Caurel is autistic, epileptic, aproxic (she does not speak), and bipolar.

Imari is also a Domestic Violence survivor and mental health advocate with lived experience. She currently lives in Salton City California a very remote area that is also a big part of her disability work for rural communities with her family: her second husband John Kariotis Jr, son Anthony Nuyen, daughter Caurel Nuyen and my youngest son Seth Gray. Imari’s love for life, outgoing personality, passion for music and art, love of sci-fi, and acting, not caring who is watching or what they are saying and just being herself. Her marriage to John Kariotis Jr has been an inspiration for what a relationship can be. You see the love they have for each other and how humor is such a big part of making it last.

Imari has worked many disasters, from historic flooding, hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, and up to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Imari’s expertise lies in integrating leadership, design, and organization. For over nearly two decades of disability community-focused disaster response, she has proven to be particularly adept at problem-solving and understanding the principles and requirements for leading in disability rights community organizing, disability-led disaster response, and empowering community resilience and optimizing outcomes for all locally, statewide, nationwide, and across the world. In developing this body of knowledge, it has earned her reputation as an SME (Subject Matter Expert) in disaster services for people with disabilities.

Imari joined the board of Disability Rights California in 2019 and sits on the Executive, Finance, DRC Ad Hoc Governance, Principles Ad Hoc, Bylaws Committee, and Co-Chair of PAIMI (Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act) Advisory Council. The Council members give advice about services for people with mental health disabilities. We review PAIMI goals and priorities. We assist with the annual PAIMI Program Performance Review process.

Imari is also involved in various Non-Profits and advocacy groups there’s DRUUMM, EqUUal Access, Disability Integrations Solutions and Riverside Dickens Festival to name a few.

Imari Kariotis is an embodiment of the philosophy: “Nothing About Us Without Us” -“I want to advance DRC’s mission by being able to use my expansive knowledge in organizing, disaster response, and disability rights to ensure the disabled community is in the forefront and never an afterthought.”

In her nonexistent free time, Imari loves to act, to go on car trips with her husband, play with her three cats, and her Queensland Healer Creamy, create art, poetry, howl at the moon and be there for her community.

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Richard Olgierd Krzyzanowski

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals (PAIMI) ), Legislation

Richard Krzyanowski has both professional and personal connections to the disability community. For more than 16 years, he worked as a mental health advocate, organizer, and educator, focusing on ending stigma and promoting social justice.

Richard lived most of his life with an undiagnosed mental health disability. “A crisis caused by severe depression ended my 20-year career in journalism. But I also learned that there were supports available to help me manage my disability. It still takes work. However, now I have the tools I need to stay healthy. Best of all, my new career lets me help others with similar challenges.”

Richard is active with several organizations, including the California Association of Mental Health Patients’ Rights Advocates and the California Association of Mental Health Peer-Run Organizations.

Richard lives in the Whittier Narrows area of Los Angeles County.

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Marty Omoto

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Executive, Office of Clients’ Rights Advocacy (OCRA) (Chair), Legislation

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Katherine Perez

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Office of Clients’ Rights Advocacy (OCRA), Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals (PAIMI)

Katherine Perez is Executive Director for The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy, and Innovation. She holds a Juris Doctorate degree from UCLA School of Law and is a PhD Candidate in Disability Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Katherine received the 2018 American Association of People with Disabilities Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leadership Award, and she co-founded the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities. Serving on the Board of Directors for DRC is important to Katherine as she believes the position provides her an opportunity to bring all sides of herself (activist, academic, policy-work, and attorney) to the table and give back to the disability community in California. She is a queer, disabled Latina with psychiatric disabilities. Her sister is autistic and has intellectual and psychiatric disabilities.

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Hector Ramirez

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Legislation, Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals (PAIMI), Nominating

Hector holds a Ph.D. in neurochemistry and has a background in communications and psychology. He currently works with county, state, national organizations, and policymakers to create legislation to reduce mental health disparities, especially for racial and ethnic communities.

For over two decades, Hector has been active volunteering with several organizations and working on several boards, including National Disabilities Rights Network, Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and various organizations across Los Angeles County.

Hector Manuel Ramirez is a lifelong disability rights advocate. He is a Latino Chiricahua Apache, Two Spirits who has Autism and Bipolar Disorder. His current focus is on increasing mental health services for immigrants, victims of human trafficking, refugees, and undocumented individuals, families, and communities.

His drive to serve on DRC’s Board comes from DRC, helping him leave the state hospital and pursue his education. His view is, “I want to advance DRC’s mission to support the notion that disability rights are human rights.”

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Anthony “Tony” Sauer

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Finance, Program and Planning (P&P)

Anthony received a Master’s degree in Management and Disability Services from the University of San Francisco. He also served as a Fellow at Sierra Health Foundation and University of Southern California (USC) School of Policy, Planning and Development’s Health Leadership Program.

He began his advocacy career as the Executive Director FREED Center for Independent Living and then later as the Director of the California Department of Rehabilitation. Anthony is a long-time disability rights activist and has been a paraplegic for more than 40 years. He has been involved with many organizations and boards, including the State Administrators of Vocation Rehabilitation’s Human Resource Development Committee and the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers.

For more than 25 years, Anthony has worked in some capacity next to Disability Rights California (DRC) and has always respected DRC’s efforts and passion. He has four daughters, two grandchildren, enjoys woodworking and used to be a motorcycle racer and mechanic. He lives with his wife, Katherine, in Grass Valley, California.

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Yolanda Vargas

Serving on DRC’s Committee(s) – Office of Clients’ Rights Advocacy (OCRA), Protection and Advocacy for Mentally Ill Individuals (PAIMI), Nominating

Yolanda has been and is currently active with many organizations and boards, including working for Inclusive and Transformative Healthcare, where she reviews grant applications to make sure proposals will positively influence people with disabilities and building self-advocacy skills for the World Institute on Disability.

Yolanda, who is disabled, spends her days helping youth with disabilities become self-advocates for themselves. It wasn’t until her little brother was born with Down syndrome that she realized people with disabilities have to fight for the right to exist in their communities. She says, “She wants to ensure future generations of people with disabilities can maintain and gain the rights they deserve.”

Yolanda is a Latinx woman who identifies as pansexual and has multiple disabilities: including mental health disabilities and a developmental disability that manifests in the form of physical limitations and wheelchair use. As a Disability Rights California board member, Yolanda wants to provide insight into serving and reaching marginalized communities.