By Linda S. Morris
The Macon Telegraph.
Paula Sims discovered her career by following her heart and passions along the way.
Sims, 49, is the CEO of Community Development Systems Inc. in Macon, which she founded about nine years ago.
The business has a team of clinicians and professionals including social workers, behavioral specialists, substance abuse counselors and others who primarily work with children and adolescents. The specialists work with crime victims, do child and family assessments and offer workshops and training affecting the workplace.
Sims “is very driven, but she’s driven in a very compassionate way,” said Alan Lischer, with Alan A. Lischer CPA Inc., who began working with Sims one year after she started her business. “She has an intense desire to take care of those around her.”
Sims’ brother Will Butler is the chief operating officer and marketing director of the company and has worked with her from the beginning.
“When we are at work, it’s a very business relationship,” he said. “I do report to her, and I carry out the duties and responsibilities. … It’s not really tough to work for her simply because I believe in what she’s doing.”
Sims was born and raised in Macon as the oldest of three children and the only girl. Lots of aunts and uncles and other relatives were close by.
“I grew up in a strong family environment,” Sims said. “My mother was very, very active with children in our community.” Her mother was a pastor, “so we were heavily involved with the church all our lives.
“I would say my relationship with Christ was really important, and I would say education was always a very huge factor in our family.”
Her first job was working at the Dairy Queen on Pio Nono Avenue when she was in high school. She was a cheerleader and played a little basketball. But her favorite sport was recreational league volleyball.
Playing sports “gave me an understanding of healthy competition, how to smile, and even if I lose, I still learn something,” she said.
From a young age, she was interested in the medical field, and she started college with a biology major. She was leaning toward physical therapy or nursing, but midway through college, she began to change her mind.
“I wasn’t sure if this is what I wanted to do in life,” Sims said. “I kept getting this pull from psychology. I loved it — it was like second nature to me.”
So Sims decided to get a dual major in biology and psychology. After graduating, she applied for several positions, and the first interview came from Bibb County schools. She was hired as an education therapist, working with kids in an exclusion school for students who have significant behavioral issues.
Less than a year later, she got an offer from the Bibb County Department of Family and Children Services that included more money and benefits. So Sims started there as a case manager in a Welfare to Work program.
“I found myself motivating and helping mothers find their niche, whether it was education or short term kinds of training to get them off of welfare to work pretty quickly,” she said.
Soon Sims was asked to become the liaison between DFACS and the Middle Georgia Consortium, which is a job training and placement agency for displaced workers.
She realized she liked the mental health aspect of her job and went back to school at Fort Valley State University while continuing to work at DFACS.
After getting her master’s degree in 1997, Sims was hired by River Edge Behavioral Health Center as a family therapist in the child and adolescent unit.
“It’s where I got my start and learned a lot of skills in therapy and counseling,” she said.
Also in 1997, Sims began teaching psychology courses part time at the former Macon State College, which she continued for about 10 years.
After a couple of years at River Edge, Sims said she wanted to have summers off so she could be with her children more. She went to work as a counselor at Riley Elementary School in Macon where she stayed from 1999 to 2006.
While doing this work, people would ask her to lead a training class or hold workshops on professional development. She also did some workplace psychology classes to help companies and organizations identify various personalities.
MOVING INTO PRIVATE PRACTICE
That’s when Sims was pulled in a new direction.
“Several friends and colleagues were asking me, ‘Why aren’t you doing what you are called to do? You should have a private practice,’ ” Sims said.
The turning point came after working with a woman Sims had been helping outside her work with the school. The woman was in a domestic violence situation, and after working with Sims, the woman found the strength to walk away from a bad relationship she had been in most of her adult life.
“I said, ‘Lord I know you gave me a little help on this one. Are you telling me this is what I need to do?’ ” Sims said. “I was being nudged by the Holy Spirit.”
After some soul-searching, Sims decided to open her own business in 2006.
“I was really, really scared,” she said.
Her first space consisted of three small offices on an upper floor at 401 Cherry St.
She applied for her first state program called Comprehensive and Continuous Student Assessment and would assess children who had been removed from their homes. Following her assessment, she would recommend whether the children should return to the home or what kind of things the whole family needed to become healthy.
Soon she had so much work she had to hire help.
About the same time, the state approved her as a provider of mental health services for children and adolescents for a program called Intensive Family Intervention.
“At that time everything changed, career wise,” Sims said. “I went from being an employee to an entrepreneur and as a business owner working by myself to where I had to hire at least 15 to 16 people almost immediately to take on a contract.”
But there was a problem.
“I had no experience in (human resources) — absolutely no experience,” Sims said. “I’ll tell you it was probably some of the brighter but darker days that I ever had seen. … I was standing in a place that I didn’t feel like I had the skill set for. I was constantly reading. I was constantly reaching out for resources to help me.
“HR is the biggest piece of where your liability lies. I was out there swimming and didn’t feel like I had a life jacket.”
But Sims got through the process of hiring additional workers and grew her business. She started out in about 600 square feet, expanding twice at the Cherry Street location to about 4,300 square feet. She moved to the ninth floor of the Fickling building in 2012, where she has about 7,000 square feet of space.
Now she has about 12 employees and between 30 and 35 contract workers. In 2009, she opened a satellite office in Columbus.
Last year, she got involved with Middle Georgia Chats, a round table discussion of local topics at Macon 41.2 NBC, which airs at noon on Mondays.
Lischer, her accountant, said he’s not surprised at Sims’ success.
“I think she started her business at the right time with the right knowledge base,” he said. “I think more so than anything, it’s that deep-rooted care and concern that she has for the people she’s serving. … She’s a wonderful, wonderful person. I’m so proud of her. … She should be an example to a lot of people.”
Her brother seems to agree.
“She really has a heart for what she’s doing,” Butler said. “She has the drive … to get things done.”
Sims’ love for her work is evident, and she wants her employees to share her passion.
“I like that I can see through my employees and people who work for me that I am a great example of lead by example,” she said. “I especially like that I bring the best out of my workers to increase productivity. … I can see business opportunities on the horizon — really clearly.”