Marie Mong at Abilities United 40th anniversary celebration.

Any look back at the first fifty years of what is now Abilities United starts with Marie Mong, who helped get the agency established back in 1963. Marie is now 95 years old and has a lifelong spirit and attitude that inspires us all, “Children with disabilities can learn just like any children, we’d just need to take it a bit slower.”

Mary knew from a young age that she wanted to work with the disabled. “When I grew up in the twenties and thirties, there was a boy in our neighborhood with Down Syndrome. He got nothing; the family just kept him isolated in the home. I think I knew then that I wanted to work with people with disabilities and find a way to help.”

Around 1960, Marie was working at the Children’s Health Council (CHC) where she worked with several mothers who had children with disabilities. These mothers wanted their children to have access to educational resources to help them live to their potential. They began meeting at First Baptist Church in Palo Alto to plan a community resource for children with developmental disabilities, and opened a nursery. Dr. Robert Taylor, a noted pediatrician from CHC, recruited Marie to run the preschool. With a bit of funding, Abilities United was incorporated in 1963 (as C.A.R), and moved to the grounds of the current Palo Alto facility.

“I ran the nursery school from the start,” says Marie. “At that time there was no training for educating the disabled, as the doctors just said to put them in an institution. We had to figure it out on our own. I thought that these children could learn just like any children, we’d just need to take it a bit slower.” This philosophy that Marie developed still represents a best practice today.

The pool was added in the 1960s, and the Aquatic Center instantly became a key part of the facility. “The pool was a godsend,” says Mary. “Swimming was great exercise for the children, and those who couldn’t walk on land could enjoy moving around in water. I remember one of our children was deaf, blind, and had developmental issues, but in the water he would just blossom – he was a beautiful swimmer.“

Looking back, Marie says that it’s remarkable how services for the disabled have been completely transformed during her lifetime. “Now disabilities get effectively identified at birth; that sure wasn’t the case fifty years ago. Back then, nobody knew anything about autism, and people with disabilities weren’t even given a chance. Now they’re participating and contributing in schools and in the community. “

Locally, people like Marie, and so many others at Abilities United, have helped drive this transformation and inspiration.

Based on an interview with Marie Mong in 2012. Written by Bob Thomas. Edited by Marie Mong and Wendy Kuehnl.